Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Contracts, tweets and volunteers

All the attention at the moment is on the Work Programme; and the government is still saying that it can't give any figures for the cost of ending the Flexible New Deal contracts because they are still negotiating. Obviously the incentive is huge to give the new prime contracts to the firms which are already running FND, rather than having to pay them off.
But meanwhile A4e picks up more small contracts. There's something called Hartlepool Works where they're running a project funded by the European Social Fund and the Learning & Skills Council delivering basic skills. And there's more life skills on offer in Blaenau Gwent with £1.27m from The Big Lottery Fund.
We've had A4e's Roy Newey on Twitter for some time, and Mark Lovell occasionally tweets. Now Emma Harrison has joined in (she's emmachat) with news of "A4e summit. Manchester. Senior people from around the world. All of them passionate about our single vision to improve peoples lives."
CDG, one of the providers seeking to expand, is still going on about getting an army of expert volunteers involved with the Work programme, mentoring the jobless. They held a "summit" which doesn't seem to have been attended by any of the other providers. "It is an effort owned by all those with an interest in helping those who have been unemployed for a long time back into work, with CDG’s initial role being to put the initiative forward, and to give it shape and structure so that it gains momentum," reports the Indus Delta site. As we've pointed out before, it's hard to reconcile the use of volunteers with profit-making private contractors. CDG is a charity, and it's boss may think that it operates differently. But charities are involved in contracts on exactly the same basis as private companies, and they employ people on the same basis. If CDG take this forward they are going to come up against some difficult questions.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Emma Harrison on Woman's Hour

"Emma Harrison, founder and Director of A4E, a company that helps people retrain for new employment" was on Woman's Hour this morning. It's not a programme I normally listen to but got a tip-off. The item was on women in the workplace, following the row amongst the women on The Apprentice, and Karen Brady's lecture to them. Emma was interviewed along with Sarah Rutherford. Emma said the programme was "shocking" but mainly done for the telly and it wouldn't last a minute in the real world. And then she dropped in the fact that she had just picked up an award for entrepreneurial women and found that young women were equally appalled. The programme is watched to learn how not to do it. You don't build good businesses by screaming at each other. The women she works with are collegiate, sharing, helping each other; she runs a global business and it's still tough to be a woman. Younger women in business now are more feminine and there's more room for that. Older women feel they mustn't stray into the feminine stuff. It was sensible stuff in the main, but typical of Ms Harrison to make sure the audience knows that she runs a global business and gets awards.

That award, by the way, was given by a group called the Pink Shoe Club (it's for women, because of course all women like pink and shoes). You can read about it on A4e's website.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Who better for the Express to look to for comment on the current mess than Emma Harrison, "a multimillionaire award-winning businesswoman who is genuinely committed to getting everyone into work". On the back of her Who Knows Best programme, where she showed that she could get even an apparently hopeless case into work (to hoots of derision from almost everyone) she is portrayed as someone whose "approach is to help, nurture and inspire people". Most of the article is a recycling of the usual PR, appealing to Express readers who really believe that, “There are about 450,000 jobs currently being advertised with the JobCentre so there are jobs out there” and don't question the statement that, "She has already found employment for more than a million people and is uniquely placed to give advice to the thousands who will be affected by the Government’s job slashing and others in the private sector facing redundancy. In fact, she is passionate and determined to help." One way of helping, as we know, is to push people into the voluntary sector. This is illustrated with a story about a 55-year-old long-term unemployed man. "I suggested that the next day he find two local charities," she says, "pick the one he liked best and offer to help out.” And of course that led to him becoming Chief Executive of a charity. Yes, it happens just like that!
While this is all drearily familiar, it's also very dangerous. Ms Harrison is the public face of A4e (except when it comes to being accountable before Parliamentary select committees) and the company is a vehicle for her own ego in a way that would be unthinkable to her rivals; and the media are happy to give her free advertising space. The situation is dire, far too dire for this sort of nonsense.


Earlier this week there was one of those business congratulating itself occasions, with the publication of the Sunday Times HSBC Top Track 250 league table, 2101. A4e is 234th. But see the table showing that in 2002 they were 23rd in the "fast track", and 95th in 2003. In 2010 they are 83rd in the "profit track" as well as 234th in the "top track". Emma Harrison, of course, is delighted, according to The Star and there was a dinner to mark the occasion.

But what's important today is the effect of the spending cuts, and for A4e it must be mixed news. There will be a lot more unemployment, so no shortage of clients, but it may be harder to get job outcomes, so harder to make a profit. While the reforms of the benefits system will not be evident for a long time, the various blows to the out-of-work will be felt very quickly. However, the slashing of the money given to local authorities will bring opportunities to A4e and other outsourcing companies, which can employ people more cheaply than can the public sector. If we see the government's actions today as ideologically driven (and I do) then the privatisation of the remnants of our public services is part of the project.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Good business

A4e was the 6th biggest supplier to the Department of Work and Pensions in 2009 / 10, according to a table you can find on the Indus Delta site. The company got £150,835,957.26 for its services, making it the biggest of the welfare-to-work contractors. £151m is a lot of money; but remember it's income, not profit. Working on the basis that A4e takes 4% in profit (the figure Emma Harrison gave not long ago) that's £6,033,440 profit for the year, just on services to the DWP. Not bad.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A4e and your money

A new description of A4e - "a public service employment support scheme" - comes from the Huddersfield Examiner's piece on a local firm.
More important is the fact that A4e has another big contract. The quango The Consumer Financial Education Board has awarded the contracts to deliver money guidance, dividing the UK between the CAB and A4e. "Private sector provider of frontline public services A4E" (yet another description) gets England and Northern Ireland, while the CAB gets Wales and its Scottish counterpart Citizens Advice Scotland gets the rest. A4e had been running a pilot scheme in the North West. I wonder how you measure the success of such pilot schemes. Anyway, it's another nibble out of the public purse for A4e.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Work, of various kinds

The noises coming out of the Conservative party conference suggest strongly that something like "Work for your Benefit" is on the cards. While that might satisfy a lot of voters, the question remains, as always, of what work the unemployed are supposed to do. Perhaps they will be the "volunteers" creating the Big Society. And that's something that A4e's Mark Lovell is keen to get the company involved with, having been in talks with Paul Twivy, a PR man who runs something called the Big Society Network. There's no reason, of course, why private companies shouldn't get involved, and they won't make money out of it, but for most of them it will be part of their PR strategy.

A4e has been at fringe meetings at both the Labour and Conservative conferences, as usual. And they've also been in Spain, where, the Financial Times reports, the government has started taking an interest in the unemployed and is talking to A4e "about what a programme to help the unemployed might look like."

A4e has another website called Tomorrow seeking contacts with employers who are faced with making people redundant. The language is somewhat startling, and the music on the home page very irritating. And shouldn't this be the role of Jobcentre Plus?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The "universal benefit"

News that Iain Duncan Smith has reached an agreement with the Treasury for his "universal benefit" plan is encouraging. But a lot of questions arise. For one thing, there are people saying that it will take a decade to bring the scheme completely into effect. Partial or gradual implementation could be a mess. While we agree that the system should guarantee that someone is better off in work than out of it, there's a big risk that it will just encourage even lower wages. We've seen that happen with tax credits; why should bad employers pay more than the pittance of the minimum wage when many people will get that topped up by the taxpayer? Employers may well seek to take on more part-timers and temporary workers because it's cheaper for them, and the people they take on won't lose their benefits entirely. Even more worrying is that the new system can be used to time-limit benefits. We've made it so much easier for you, they'll say, so if you still won't work you're not going to get anything at all. That's certainly one way of saving money.
And what about the Work Programme? Payments to providers are supposed to depend on full-time, permanent jobs, while the new system will encourage part-time, temporary work. Will that change?
What are your thoughts?