Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Expansion; and comment

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

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

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 August 2010

The house she grew up in

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

Emma on Radio 4

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

Sunday, 22 August 2010

No choice

There's an interesting exchange on the BBC "Ouch!" message boards started by someone who got a phone call from A4e. The person had no idea what "A4e" was, and, when told that s/he was in receipt of direct payments for social care, was still flummoxed, since the only payment s/he had received was a one-off small cheque some time ago. The point of this account is not simply that an A4e employee made a mess of a phone call; it's that a great many people can have vital parts of their lives controlled by this company without even knowing it. Privatising public services removes choice and it removes accountability. The thousands of people whose direct payments have been farmed out to A4e had no say in the matter. Similarly, those whose children are referred to Vox centres, or who have to access a CLAC any of the numerous services "outsourced" by local councils, may well not know that it's A4e who are running things. In some cases, like direct payments, even the local councils have only the choice between A4e or keeping the service in-house, because there are no other players.
Welfare-to-work similarly gives the client no choice. Flexible New Deal was set up with choice in mind. Each area would have two prime contractors so that clients could choose between them; but the companies successfully argued that the clients would not have enough information to make an informed choice (previous reputation being, apparently, irrelevant) so for the first year they would be allocated to a provider by the Jobcentre. Now with the Work Programme each of the 11 large areas will have a single large contractor, which will engage a lot of smaller outfits and create competition between them. (A4e describes this set-up on their MyA4e site.) Note that the client has no say in the matter whatever.
Few people know or care about this - until it impacts on them, and they find that there is nothing they can do about it.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

More TV for Emma

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

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

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The View from Serco

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

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Vacancy for proofreader at A4e

Doesn't anyone at A4e spot howlers like the one in the very first sentence of the "news" piece on their MyA4e site which tells us how John from last night's programme is doing? "John is doing real well in his new job," we're told. This is lousy grammar (it should be "doing really well", if you're still puzzled). Perhaps they think it doesn't matter, but there are still many of us who wince at such ignorance. We also wince at cliches like "exceeding expectations" and using "transition" as a verb. Good luck to John; but I remember a badge I used to own, which bore the legend, "Don't tell me what kind of day to have."

And after the publicity?

I didn't watch Emma Harrison last night in "Who Knows Best". If you did, feel free to comment. The lack of any reviews in the press, apart from the Guardian's premature piece, shows that it raised little interest. Perhaps that means that the TV companies have exhausted this particular line of programming; the "it's easy to get a job if you really want one" line. But I bet there is more stuff in the pipeline that encourages this perception and bashes all "benefits scroungers".
What does all this exposure mean for A4e? Like the other big contractors, they have been encouraged to expect to inherit the new Work Programme contracts. Emma Harrison's expectations are summed up in a little piece in the Wellington Times: "Iain Duncan Smith's New Work Programme has been greeted as 'fantastic news' by Emma Harrison the chairman of A4e. A4e have £300 million of Government training contracts and controls 25% of the long-term unemployment budget for the Department of Work and Pensions." She praises the new direction: "The way it has been done in the past is with a myriad of programmes going on, it has been too much, too complicated and the cost of it has been too much. This Government has been brave enough to announce that there will be one programme and that programme will be individualised to every single person who comes on the programme." And: Mrs Harrison said that A4e was 'very happy' to work within the New Work Programme payment structure. "We are growing organically. We don't do acquisition. We are all owned by ourselves. We are very well placed to do this thing," she said." And finally: "We will export this worldwide."
The "framework" is expected to be announced in November; those big companies which will control the contracts under the Work Programme. We can assume that the procurement process will not be influenced by the amount of TV exposure a company has had. But when it comes to selling your services worldwide, it can only help.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Who Knows Best? Now you don't need to watch

I don't want to spoil it for you, but the Guardian already has, publishing a review of tonight's programme prematurely. A4e's Emma Harrison won the challenge, getting the lad chosen for her by Ray Lewis a £17.5k position in a city firm. See, it's easy! But the writer of the piece, Alison Benjamin, isn't impressed. "The viewer was .... left with the sneaking suspicion that the competitive duo had called in the favour of friends as gospel-spouting Lewis lines up a position for Dave as a caretaker at a church-run community centre, and well-connected Harrison gets John a job in the City." Benjamin continues: "My main gripe is not so much with the programme itself – other than it was yet another vehicle for Harrison and Lewis to satisfy their insatiable appetites for self-publicity – but more with how the programme fails to highlight the government's flawed approach to tackling unemployment. It stands to reason that anyone given the tailored, one-to-one, intensive support, guidance and care that John received has a much better chance of being offered a job than someone left to languish on the types of employment programmes that welfare-to-work providers receive large sums of taxpayers' money to deliver in the form of government contracts. Another TV show, The Fairy Jobmother, bears this out. It features former Harrison employee Hayley Taylor going into people's homes to transform their job chances."
And well done to Mark Shields for keeping up his campaign. He was one of the people who were "advised" by Harrison on "Famous, Rich and Jobless" and he's still out of work. Let's hope the publicity helps him.
So, can I watch something else at 9.00 tonight?

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Now it's "wellness centres"

The timing of a piece in the Mail Online is surely not a coincidence. We learn that "An initiative to improve the health of the long-term unemployed is to be launched by Emma Harrison, founder of the A4e welfare-to-work organisation, and John Bird, who set up the Big Issue. The joint venture will establish 'wellness centres' staffed with GPs throughout the 250 A4e branches." In case we weren't aware of next Tuesday's TV programme, the piece goes on:
"Harrison, who will star in the Channel 4 programme Who Knows Best: Getting A Job on Tuesday, said: 'There is a correlation between poor health and people in the subsistence culture, the dispossessed and longterm unemployed.'" The timing, however, is a minor issue. What is much more important is this incursion into yet another aspect of people's lives. Everyone has access to a GP, and currently has the freedom to choose when and whether to consult one and seek medical advice. A4e now plan to erode that freedom.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Who Knows Best?

Channel 4 bosses think that you can't have too many programmes about unemployed people, so Emma Harrison is on our screens again on Tuesday 10 August. It's the second in a series called "Who Knows Best" (the working title was "The Wager", but that was obviously dropped.) Ms Harrison is billed as "the country's top recruitment expert", and we're told that "Emma's approach is to work with people: 'I walk by their side, hold their hand and we go on a journey resulting in them getting a job that transforms their lives.'" This piece doesn't mention A4e, and it may well be that Channel 4 has taken the same approach as the BBC did with FR&J; they are not advertising the company as long as they don't mention it, but everybody else can.

Meanwhile, one of the specialist sub-contractors in the Flexible New Deal business, Dering Employment Services, has gone bust. Dering was run by and for deaf people, and according to the Carley Consult site, "The company has claimed that the reasons for its failure stem from alleged non-payment of invoices and breach of contract on the part of one of the largest prime contractors with whom it works, and it is understood that Dering are considering legal action." No one is saying at the moment which prime contractor they are talking about. This comes at a time when Chris Grayling, the Work & Pensions minister, is trying to reassure the voluntary sector that they will get a slice of the Work Programme cake. In an interview with John Plummer of the Third Sector he points to various measures to ensure that charities and the like take a full part in the contracts. "We don't want to create a situation where you end up with a hard taskmaster prime contractor in effect exploiting voluntary sector organisations," he said. But Plummer maintains that "unless third sector organisations are used to bidding for huge contracts, they had better make friends in the City soon - or their role in government welfare projects could continue to be limited primarily to subcontracting."

Figures for FND outcomes have not been published, but A4e, in a PR piece on Wales Online, announces that they have got 5,626 people into jobs in Wales in the last 12 months. This means nothing, of course, without the total number of people on the programme; and we're told that "A4e has worked with more than 20,000 Welsh customers". That's only 28%.