Friday, 31 December 2010

Websites and a new year

As 2010 closes, A4e's prospects of profits look good. But I can't help wondering whether the cult of personality is going to be detrimental to the company in the long run. There's yet another website, Working Families Everywhere, spreading the word about the new opportunity (and with, of course, a video of Emma Harrison). This latest enterprise gets its own Facebook page to go with Emma's own page (which 169 people apparently "like"). I've lost count of all the websites devoted to A4e and Emma Harrison; and she's become the face of welfare-to-work for the Daily Express and, apparently, for David Cameron. But when you court publicity you draw attention to your shortcomings. A4e's results will be under scrutiny as never before.

And Emma has competition in the publicity stakes. Ex-A4e employee Hayley Taylor is back from the USA, where she was called an "international careers expert", and is preparing a new series of The Fairy Jobmother whilst appearing on ITV's Daybreak.

But let's be clear. There are only so many jobs that you can fix up with your personal contacts and with employers who want to appear on the telly. And pushing people into "volunteering" doesn't count. A huge amount of public money is going into the Work Programme and into all those other contracts which A4e has. Time to show that we're getting what we're paying for.

A follow-up to the Private Eye piece on Jonty Olliff-Cooper is on the Blood and Treasure blog. Well worth reading the comments!

A good 2011 to everybody.

Friday, 24 December 2010


It's a good Christmas Eve for A4e's Emma Harrison as the Express gives her a chunk of publicity. "CAMERON HIRES OUR JOBS EXPERT TO GET BRITAIN'S UNEMPLOYED WORKING" is the headline, and it's an entirely uncritical rehash of the "family champions" story. "Ms Harrison, 47, will begin by helping find jobs for 500 families who have never worked. It is hoped the project will eventually help to put all 120,000 such families into work. She is the founder of A4e (Action For Employment), which has 3,500 staff in 250 offices and has found work for more than a million people." And to emphasise the clout she now apparently has with government, "She will also be forming an advisory board made up of leading figures from the main political parties as well as the charitable and the private sectors." They've got a quote from Children's Minister Sarah Teather. But the really interesting bit is in the last sentence. Remember that yesterday Harrison was vague about where the money was going to come from. Well, now we know that "The campaign is funded by new Community Budgets and the Early Intervention Grant, which frees local areas from Government micro-management in how much they spend on vulnerable families." Which means that the local authorities will lose control over how they spend their money and be forced to pay Harrison and her team.
Where does this leave the Work Programme contracts? Are the other providers competing on a level playing field? Just how much influence does Harrison really have over the government? And more questions. Will any mainstream journalists bother to investigate what happens with this scheme, or will it be left to Private Eye and to blogs like this to bring a little reality to the scene?
A Merry Christmas to all our readers.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Emma Harrison on Woman's Hour - again

Woman's Hour (Radio 4) today carried a discussion between Emma Harrison of A4e and Helen Dent of Family Action about the Family Champions project, with the excellent Jenni Murray as the questioner. Now, Family Action has been going since 1869, and Dent, like Harrison, has a CBE, so they were well matched.
Harrison, asked to explain what family champions were all about, started by saying that she had been asked to speak to "No. 10" about families who have never worked. (She later got in another plug for the closeness of her relationship with the PM.) Yes, lots of things were being done by various agencies, but it didn't add up to working with whole families.
Dent said that FA specialise in dealing with families where there are multiple and complex needs, and the priority for society was for those families to resolve their difficulties, not working. This set the tone for the differences between the tow women; both scrupulously polite, Harrison faintly praising FA once or twice, but clearly disagreeing.
Harrison asserted that families had to have a sense of purpose, and their ambition should be to be working families. Dent talked about "deeply challenging" family situations and gave an example of a family with huge problems, where it was necessary to start with small steps.
Murray put the point to Harrison - is getting a job suitable for everybody? Harrison said she didn't accept Dent's statement that working is not a goal, and gave her own example of a family she's working with where everybody else had failed but she got them volunteering in a charity shop. Murray asked what it will cost, since people will have to be employed on this. Harrison wasn't sure; she talked about using local authorities' community budgets, about £120m to start with, and this was good news for families.
Dent, asked if this was a sensible use of resources, said that the government was "muddling up" types of families; the need is to invest in intensive work to start with, and Harrison is wrong about this immediate goal of work.

So Emma Harrison is getting oodles of publicity for supposedly persuading government to fork out for a new scheme, when groups like Family Action have been doing it for years without any fanfare. I wish that this short but revealing item could be the basis of a much longer exploration of the subject.

Jonty Olliff-Cooper

I'm indebted to Private Eye yet again for a piece about A4e's appointment of a new director of policy and strategy. The Eye (which calls A4e a company which "seems more effective at finding jobs for former ministers and their functionaries than the unemployed") reports that A4e have signed up Jonty Olliff-Cooper who previously worked in Conservative Central Office as assistant to David Cameron's aide. "A4e has a history," says the Eye, "of hiring political insiders: it recruited David Blunkett as an adviser when Labour was in power. But a former Labour minister will not be as helpful looking after its £150m contract with the government as a Conservative one."
Olliff-Cooper may be small beer compared to Blunkett, but he is certainly a Tory loyalist, tweeting about what an "awesome job" Cameron is doing, and he has the inside contacts.
The piece ends with another swipe at A4e's record. Good to know that Private Eye is keeping an eye on them.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

More on banking

We reported in October 2009 that A4e had set up a company called Capitec UK Ltd under an unclear relationship with the South African bank, Capitec, and had been given a £1m grant from Yorkshire Forward's Regional Industrial Development Board to get a bank up and running. That seemed to fall through. But A4e haven't given up. Mark Lovell has had a lot to say about ways of getting involved in "financial services and banking for the poor", citing schemes in the UK and abroad. In a blog post on 17 November he mentions his admiration for Capitec, but saysa nothing about Capitec UK. Five days earlier another post set out what he percieves as the shortcomings of the Post Office Bank and insists, "There is a need for a radical new banking service for people stuck below and outside mainstream financial services. The Post Office network may be invigorated through these proposals but the financial proposition is a long way from supporting the most financially vulnerable and marginalised. I still intend to do something about it." And in that post he refers to a document called "Total Person" which explains A4e's ambition to have a single "broker" for all the interventions and services which a client needs. It's a well-developed programme; and given Emma Harrison's apparent success with the coalition government it could see a further spread, especially given the intention, by A4e at least, that the Work Programme will give them the right to deal with "whole families". That is chilling enough in itself, but coupled with a banking service for these clients it would be nightmarish.
People with little money and no prospects need all the help they can get from agencies designed as public services and accountable to the public. They should not be forced to access these services through a private, for-profit company.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Family champions - the coverage

We have idle media populated by journalists who don't bother to do any research. That is confirmed by the scant coverage of the news today of Emma Harrison's new role.

The BBC carried the interview with her very early in the morning. The interviewer could have asked, "Why do you think you'll be successful with this when A4e's record is so bad?" But no. The BBC's news website has only two sentences on the subject as part of its report of David Cameron's speech.

The Express does only slightly better. Describing Harrison as an entrepreneur, it reports Cameron as saying, "What works is focused, personalised support - someone the family trusts coming into their home to help them improve their lives step-by-step, month-by-month."

The Telegraph's take is that "Mr Cameron announced that he had appointed a new families “tsar” in a drive to help households in crisis escape unemployment and poverty. Emma Harrison, the entrepreneur and chairman of A4e (Action for Employment), will support hundreds of families in a pilot scheme to help them find work."

The best coverage so far is on the Children & Young People Now website. They report that the government intends the scheme to be piloted in 6 to 10 local authority areas, still to be announced, which will get extra cash to run it. The site expands the quote from Cameron: "Harrison understands how to help families improve their lives "step-by-step, month-by-month". She refuses to believe some people are lost causes and has a proven track record of turning lives around," he said. "Her approach is the complete opposite of the impersonal, one-size-fits-all approach that has failed so many families – which is why I have asked her to come on board to help us." (This is the obvious point at which to say, "Really? Are you sure?", but of course no one does.) They report Harrison as saying, "I have more than twenty years experience helping the long-term unemployed get back into the workplace and all the evidence shows that by providing focused, one-to-one support we will start to help troubled families." (What evidence, Emma? A4e's results?) They then say that the Department of Education emphasised that Harrison's involvement in the trials is "on a purely personal basis. No payment or benefit of any type will accrue to her or to any organisations she is involved with."
Hmm, "no benefit of any type" except oodles of publicity and first crack at the eventual contracts, perhaps.

When will journalists start to do their homework?

Family Champion

Emma Harrison of A4e is today being appointed "family champion" by the government. She was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning (very early - I missed it) but you can hear it here. She said that she wanted to turn all families with long-term unemployment into "working families" and to do it she will "cut across all this stuff" such as drugs. Someone will be appointed to work with each family; they are being referred to as "Emmas" by the government, apparently. The interviewer pressed her on what would be done differently, but we didn't really get an answer. Harrison herself will have six families to work with, and she cited one of her families where no one had ever worked, but within an hour and a half she'd got them doing voluntary work, giving them back their pride and turning them into a "working family".
Harrison says she is not being paid for this. But of course she wouldn't need to be; the publicity is priceless. This has been a goal of A4e for some time, to get whole families into their orbit. Look out for more media coverage today.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Think Tanks and Opportunities

A recent edition of Private Eye carried a piece about the "think tank" Demos, where former Work & Pensions secretary James Purnell now works. Demos, says the Eye, is funded by companies like A4e and PWC, which stand to benefit from the Work Programme. (The Demos website doesn't list its funders.) Another former minister with a new job is Jacqui Smith, who now advises Sarina Russo Job Access, an Australian company also bidding for Work Programme contracts. Now Ed West of the Telegraph points out that another influential think tank, the IPPR, is funded by a long list of taxpayer- funded bodies headed (alphabetically, at least) by A4e.

This week Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, announced new opportunities for the private sector, in "offender management". As usual, A4e is ahead of the game. They work with offenders in various parts of the country, including providing "employability focused qualifications to offenders carrying out their Community Payback orders in their local communities" in the North East.

And then there's Work Clubs. These are to be part of the Work programme, provided by the Jobcentres, for those who haven't been out of work very long. But A4e have already launched their own Work Clubs in the North East and Derbyshire. Is this a pre-emptive move to take the work away from the Jobcentres?

If anyone wants a handy guide to what A4e does, there's one here. Spot the mistake in, ironically, the "Education & Enterprise" section.

Monday, 6 December 2010

That press release

Patrick Butler in the Guardian has returned to the question of the press release in which Emma Harrison was supposed to have said that the government's welfare cuts were "fantastic". What happened, asks Butler. He spoke to Emma herself, who stuck to her comments on his his original article. She hadn't said it. He checked with Hillgrove, the source of the press release, again. They cited a TV interview in which she does indeed use the word "fantastic" but it's about news of the welfare reforms and the Work programme, not the cuts. Hillgrove say that an employee who "manipulated" quotes has been "disciplined". Butler ends his piece by pointing to the comments which his original article attracted, seeing them "as a reflection of the anger and unease many people feel not just about the cuts, and unemployment, but the welfare to work industry, and its practices."

Thursday, 2 December 2010

She didn't say that!

Emma Harrison of A4e is furious at the Guardian's story yesterday which quoted a press release that has her saying, "The coalition government's cuts are, in fact, fantastic!" She used the comment function on the article's web page to say, "I did not have any knowledge of this press release. I did not ask for it, write it or approve it. My views are wholly and utterly misrepresented and from what I can determine were written by someone from Hillgrove that I have never met with, or spoken to. The blog writer by his own admission was suspicious that these were not my sentiments but he did not bother to check with me. Ummmmmm." A second comment from her reads: "My PR company? I rang them. They have apologised. Junior that i do not know, trying to get the attention of editors with dramatic, distorted and what I consider to be offensive views. Not my views. Shame the blog writer did not check with me or other Guardian articles they have written about me and my views - the ones when they have actually spoken to me....... Ummmmmm. PS I am not a baddy."
I believe Emma (although I'm not sure what the "Ummmmmm" means). Someone added a sentence to the standard stuff which was way over the top, and good for her for responding to it. But there's a lesson there. To go all out for publicity is dangerous.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

ESF contracts - secret performance data

There's an article in today's Financial Times by Cunthia O'Murchu which points out that A4e has had €60 million of public money since 2007 for programmes in the UK and Poland, as well as £700m for its welfare to work programmes funded by the UK, but we can't know how well it's doing on its EU structural fund contracts because the UK government won't release data on individual companies. However, the article cites projects in London where data is available and which show A4e to be performing very badly. One £2m contract was supposed to help 400 people into work, but after a year only 14 people had found a job. Another £820,000 contract for learning and skills was also reported to be underperforming. A4e rejected the criticism and gave different figures. The FT tried using FoI requests to get the data for the EU-funded programmes, but was refused, despite the fact that 2 million people have been enrolled on them in the UK. The article goes on to highlight the poor performance of A4e, along with Reed, on the Pathways programme. But then it cites an Ofsted review which says that A4e is not alone; all the providers were failing to achieve job outcome targets.
This sits rather oddly with the blythe optimism of Emma Harrison.

Cuts: in fact, fantastic!

That's the title of a Guardian piece in which Patrick Butler takes a swipe at a press release by A4e's Emma Harrison. He quotes the press release in full. It's the usual stuff but with a paragraph we haven't seen before:
'Perhaps the only person who is positive about spending cuts is the head of Britain's biggest employment agency A4e. "The coalition government's cuts are, in fact, fantastic!" says Emma Harrison. "Cutting benefits will put a stop to people making a profession out of being unemployed. The Government is looking to put more effort into helping people get back to work which is the most important thing." A4e controls 25% of the long-term unemployment budget for the Department of Work and Pensions. "There are about 450,000 jobs currently being advertised with the JobCentre so there are jobs out there," insists Mrs Harrison.'
Butler contacted A4e's PR advisers, Hillgrove PR, and asked if the release wasn't a bit insensitive, but they said that they couldn't speak for her.
I think she's gone a bit too far this time.