Saturday, 31 December 2011

What hope for 2012?

What does 2012 have in store? For A4e, who knows? They will certainly continue to bid for every contract going; and with this government intent on dismantling the whole notion of public service and privatising everything in sight, there will be no shortage of contracts. But there's a lot more competition now, in all the sectors once dominated by A4e. And the emphasis on payment by results (already jargonised as PBR) puts more pressure on the companies to deliver. The Work Programme has been criticised from the start, and the Financial Times keeps on the case. Far fewer people, it reports, will be referred from Incapacity Benefit or ESA than was forecast, and this impacts on the smaller organisations and charities who were signed up as sub-contractors for that purpose. But the numbers of referrals from JSA will substantially increase, as unemployment rises and the number of vacancies slumps. The government remains adamant that no figures will be produced until the spring. A4e will no doubt look to its overseas operations to provide profit. If anyone needs reminding of the scope of A4e's operations, look at their factsheet.

For those on the receiving end of the services of such companies as A4e, the prospects for 2012 look bleak. We already have Workfare, and no one is bothering to call it anything else. One council, Westminster, is going ahead with docking benefits from those deemed guilty of anti-social behaviour. Read the story in the Telegraph.
The most disturbing bit of this story: "Westminster is also considering docking the council tax benefits of people who are not making an effort to get a job. Cllr Roe said that for every Westminster resident on council tax benefits, there were 'seven vacancies in low-skilled jobs like shelf-stacking, waitressing and window cleaning. That implies at least some of those people were not working as hard as they could be to get jobs.' If agreed after a consultation, the proposals would come into force in just over a year and would affect all claimants except for pensioners." The implications of that are dreadful. It's a short step from that to what most Tories would really like - time-limited benefits. I'm not sure they would dare to bring it in this side of a general election, but it's on the cards. Another strong possibility is the privatisation of Jobcentre Plus.

Try to have a happy New Year!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Advising Goverment

Always keen to advise the government, A4e has submitted a document on Debt Management to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It's a strange read in some ways; very consciously using the formal language of such documents whilst lapsing into clumsy phraseology from time to time. There also seems to be a section which has been chopped out. But it's the content that counts. What does A4e recommend?

"As providers of a wide range of front-line public services to the socially and financially excluded, A4e has rich experience of the multiple challenges people face in staying afloat." They know that people who are "unbanked" get trapped into high-interest loans. So the government should buy out this debt from the high-street lenders, and the debtors could repay it at a low rate of interest. I can't really see that happening. Interestingly, the document states that 50% of the clients of A4e's CLACs are repeat customers because they haven't changed the behaviour which keeps getting them into debt.

There's a paragraph which needs decoding. It's arguing for "a single interface" through which people can be referred for debt advice. I wonder who would run that.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas

There's little going on at this time of year. A4e continues to put out good news stories; and each success that they trumpet is a real cause for celebration for the person concerned. But how the Work Programme is really working is still a secret. An MP asked how many of the over-50s had found jobs through it and was told by Chris Grayling that no figures would be issued until next spring.

Back in September we reported (thanks to Private Eye) that A4e had a £300k contract from the government to design future welfare contracts. The company has now publicised this on their "Insight" website. It's not a new experience for A4e, to be paid to design contracts which they can then successfully bid for. A4e designed the pilot programme for the FSA's money guidance service. Lo and behold, earlier this year they got the contract for the Money Advice Service. Let's be clear, A4e isn't the only private company on this profitable merry-go-round.

So now, to all my readers, have a peaceful Christmas.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Emma Harrison and troubled families

Has Emma Harrison been shunted out of the picture in the "troubled families" scene? She was hailed as the solution to the problem of supposedly 120,000 of them after the riots, with her "Working Families Everywhere" scheme. Now Cameron is to announce £448m "to fund a national network of local authority teams charged with identifying 'chaotic families' and helping them address their problems." (Guardian) In charge of all this will be Louise Casey, with her "Troubled Familes Unit". The BBC nods to Harrison as the "family champion" but none of the other reports mention her.

With no real news from A4e (except that Roy Newey has been travelling - India and Latvia), it's the fact that 2.64 million are out of work that dominates the headlines. And still the government clings to the idea that the Work Programme will work some sort of magic. It's hard to see how. Many will go into "work placements" but most of those will not get real jobs. And what work there is, is often temporary. A young man recently appeared on a radio programme with Iain Duncan Smith in London, and said that despite his qualifications he could not get work. IDS promised to help him - and we learned today that he has indeed got a job and is thrilled to bits. But it's a temporary job, for the Christmas period.

A recent report showed that "just 20%" of those on the WP are being referred to the voluntary sector. That might just show that 80% don't need that specialist support. What we don't know is what is being done for that 80%. What actual skills training is happening?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

Is it all gloom and doom for the Work Programme, or is Mark Lovell right to be cheerful?

On 1 December the Financial Times said that the WP was "hanging by a thread". The numbers of people out of work is forecast to rise, and Ian Mulheirn, director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank, said, "The combination of rising caseloads, falling labour demand, and the shift to 100 per cent outcome-based funding for providers is dire news for Work Programme viability." Mulheirn has warned before that WP providers could ask for a tax-payer bail-out if they can't make money. The director of another think-tank, Inclusion, says that "providers will be able to place an average of 7 per cent fewer people in work over the next five years than previously estimated." A spokesman for the DWP was determinedly upbeat: "even in these tough times there are jobs out there, with Jobcentre Plus taking 10,000 vacancies every working day."

Mark Lovell takes issue with this pessimism in a piece on A4e's website the next day. He is hampered by the fact that he is not supposed to publish outcome figures, but says that more than 7,000 people have got jobs via A4e since the launch of the WP. He says that, "Sustainment is higher than we forecast so far". We don't know, of course, what proportion of starts this represents. But he says that the money is coming in.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Bizarre PR

We are used to A4e sprinkling PR pieces all over the internet, but the latest effort is particularly bizarre. Foodbuzz is a "food blog community" site; but this month A4e joined and on 23rd posted 14 links to pieces on its own website (which, of course, have nothing to do with food).
Note: they've now been removed - see comment below.

One of A4e's Business Improvement Managers has his CV on a jobs site. One intriguing statement on it is that in Flexible New Deal in his contract area he moved "over 45% of referred customers into full time employment". But the DWP has published the figures. In that particular area, between October 2009 and October 2011, A4e had 14,810 starts, of which 3,230 got short-term jobs and 2,150 got "sustained" jobs. Now, even if you add short and long-term together, it only comes to 36.3%. So I wonder where the 45% figure came from.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Lists, pamphlets and the WP

Another of those lists of important people has been produced by the Big Issue in the North. A panel decided on the 50 most influential people in the region and, sure enough, A4e's Emma Harrison gets in at no. 13 (Sir Alex Ferguson is only 21st). It's a meaningless list of business people, politicians and other worthies, but no doubt those on it (and not on it) will find it important.
But while Harrison gets onto such lists, it's Mark Lovell who seeks to provide the intellectual underpinning for A4e's business. Harrison may be "advising" this government, but he is writing for a Labour party policy pamphlet on his current favourite subject of helping unemployed people to start their own businesses. This is something of a hostage to fortune for the Labour MPs who also contributed to the pamphlet. Recent governments have been happy to align themselves with business leaders to whom they have subsequently given large contracts; but it is a dangerous habit.
The reputation of many firms is staked on the Work Programme. We are not to have any figures until next March, so the evidence is largely anecdotal. We don't even know how many people have started on the WP. At least the Youth Contract fulfils Harrison's wish to get young people onto the programme earlier. But already we hear that several providers are unable to cope properly with the numbers of clients being referred, and that staff are inadequately trained. CVs are being sent out to employers without the knowledge, let alone permission, of the clients, and they are often one-size-fits-all CVs imposed on the clients. Has any actual training started? One area where we really need figures now is the companies taking people on work placements. Are there companies taking free labour on a large scale with no intention of employing people? The DWP should draw up a list of employers, number of placements and number of jobs.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Youth Contract, income and the voluntary sector

The newly announced "youth contract" promises more profit opportunities for A4e and the other providers. Money is going into wage subsidies but it's all being done through the Work Programme and Grayling has said that providers will only be paid for long-term jobs, as usual. And it's threats as usual too. Don't take a placement or a job and you lose your benefit.

The Learning and Performance Insitute has compiled a list of the "top 50" UK training organisations. This is top only in the sense of fiscal success i.e. revenue. A4e comes second with revenue of £191m last year, only £4m behind Babcock International. Note that this is revenue, not profit, and presumably includes A4e's international business as well as its UK contracts. But it's a lot of money.

The complaints about the relationship of the voluntary organisations to the the private providers in the WP rumble on. But Kevin Curley, who has been the top professional in the voluntary sector (there are a lot of well-paid people running it) has weighed in. "He cited the Work Programme as a prime example (of strange relationships) , asking: 'Is this what an independent local voluntary sector should be doing in any case – helping G4S and A4e to maximise their profits from welfare-to-work schemes? Do we really want our relationship with the state brokered by the private sector?' "

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


The CBI's Annual Conference recently held a panel debate with the title "Good for Britain, good for business, good for growth". A4e's Emma Harrison was on the panel. Two other members are also bosses of outsourcing companies (Circle Health and Apetito, which provides catering services to hospitals). So you can see why the word "good" was being stressed. The Yorkshire Post described Harrison as "chairman of Sheffield social purpose firm A4e, which gets people into work", and reports that "Ms Harrison urged firms to 'do well by doing good'." This is a familiar mantra of Harrison. It doesn't seem to have been her only contribution. Michael Gillick, boss of a company called Paritas Ltd, tweeted to her, "A colleague said your speech at the CBI conference was inspirational. Is it published anywhere?" Emma replied that they were filming so it could be on the CBI's website.

BBC cameras were in the Liverpool A4e office for a news item about the Work Programme shown on 7 November. A4e say that the two young people filmed are being followed by the reporter, Mark Easton. So can we expect that all the stops will be pulled out to get these two into jobs? I hope so, for their sakes. Meanwhile, another contract enables A4e to say that it is "assisting in helping service heroes start their own business". This involves money from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills awarded to the Royal British Legion to help service leavers start their own businesses. The RBL have naturally sub-contracted this to firms like A4e.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Emma Harrison on Newsnight - and volunteers

Newsnight is currently running a major piece on youth unemployment. And in the introduction, up pops Emma Harrison, described as chairman of A4e and a government advisor. She says that the problem is entrenched, young people need one on one support, and they need it earlier. It's A4e's latest argument, that they should be put on the Work Programme well before the current 12 months period.

The young people in the studio discussion are not happy with the attitude of the Jobcentres. They talk about the demoralising effect of sending off hundreds of applications with no result. Chris Grayling talks about the government's work experience scheme, but the young people are not impressed. A young man who talks about the problems of expecting people to live on apprenticeship money when they don't have parents to depend on - he is ignored. Paxman talks about the effects of immigration. David Milliband favours the previous government's Future Jobs Fund, and a guarantee of a job. One man says work trials don't lead to jobs, but Grayling says that more than half do get jobs. He says that the WP is the answer to everything. It will match individuals to the vacancies. The discussion goes on, but gets nowhere.

The spat between the voluntary sector and the WP providers goes on. The Third Sector website expands on the story that A4e asked a local volunteer centre to provide people to work with their clients on CVs. It turns out that it was the Oxford A4e which asked for volunteers with good IT skills and a lot of patience. The volunteer centre refused because, without payment, it would be taking advantage of volunteers. The response of A4e's Nigel Lemmon is interesting: "We are investigating these allegations thoroughly. We only work with volunteer agencies where they are happy to work with us to support our customers back into work – improving the lives of those individuals and benefiting their communities." Dan Sumners of Volunteering England said that it was potentially exploitation to expect volunteers to help to deliver a service for a profit-making company. Yet there are voluntary sector organisations contracted to A4e and the others. So it apparently okay, as Lemmon suggests, for volunteers to be used if the organisation is getting paid.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Emma Harrison on workfare and the WCA

It's hardly a surprise that Emma Harrison has a Facebook page - one of those you can "like" (only 327 people have, up to now). But there's an interesting exchange with someone who calls herself Willow Jacky, which ends in a statement of Emma's and A4e's position on a number of issues on A4e's website. The poster is concerned about "workfare" and about sick people being forced into the jobs market.

Harrison misses the poster's point about people being made to work for free in places like Tesco, and simply extols the benefits of working for such companies - "All employment provides really positive opportunities to develop." But then she goes on to talk about Workfare and its origins in America. She doesn't mention that the main point of Workfare is that it time-limits benefits, but she is right about its drawbacks, leaving many people in absolute destitution. But A4e's approach is much better. Evidence? None, of course.

On the second issue, Harrison states the government's line with approval, but agrees that "the current process is not adequate". Never fear, A4e is "working with the DWP to see if there is a better way of designing this process".

Friday, 11 November 2011

Weird and Wonderful - and IDS

If you're curious about Thornbridge Hall, the Derbyshire mansion home of Emma Harrison, you can see it on the latest of Nigel Slater's "Simple Cooking" programmes. Slater went there to see a farmer, Tom Clarke, who farms wild boar there. We also met Jim Harrison, Emma's husband, who brews beer. The episode is called Weird and Wonderful.

Earlier today Iain Duncan Smith was on The World at One on Radio 4. It should be here. He was talking to people in Hackney about unemployment and what the government is doing about it. Naturally, everything is pinned on the Work Programme. The payment method will ensure its success. There was the usual casual statistic - there are half a million jobs in the Jobcentres each week. We need a dynamic workforce, he said. The representative of one organisation said they had not bid for the WP contracts because it was too risky, but would continue to help people. One man, with a criminal record, said it was hopeless and, when IDS disagreed, said he couldn't even get a work trial. Once again the solution was the WP, which would provide mentors to help him all the way. Another man, with a string of qualifications, said he couldn't find work either. IDS personally guaranteed that he could get him a job. (Of course he can; but that doesn't help all the others in the same position.) The interviewer asked him if it was fair that benefits are to go up in line with inflation (a line that other BBC people are also pushing). IDS said there were no plans to change that, but it was a long way short of a guarantee.

I wonder if he will come on next year to explain why the WP isn't delivering.

Mark Lovell v. Patrick Butler

A4e's Mark Lovell has responded to the criticisms made by Patrick Butler of the Guardian in his piece The Work Programme: not working for young people. Butler had cited the case of a charity, New Deal of the Mind, which was signed up as a sub-contractor of A4e but had yet to receive any referrals. Lovell now uses the Huffington Post website to answer him and give us The Facts Behind the Work Programme. It's a long piece, but what it seems to boil down to is that they couldn't predict the numbers, it's taking a long time to set up, but the referrals will come. He also gives us his view on tacking youth unemployment - refer young people to the Work Programme sooner.

But Butler has moved on, picking up the story about charities being exploited by Work Programme providers. He has spoken to some of these voluntary organisations, and quotes Chris Grayling's insistence that the primes shouldn't be doing this. Butler wants contact with charities which believe they're being exploited and people who have been "covertly" referred to volunteer centres.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Volunteers and mandatory work

The voluntary sector continues to complain bitterly about being let down by the prime providers of the Work Programme. Organisations were assured that, as sub-contractors, they would get referrals, but haven't. But they now say that the primes are "passing clients to volunteer centres without payment". A briefing paper by volunteering england (they don't believe in capital letters) names A4e among a number of providers which have referred people to a volunteer centre "without any prior contact" and with no suggestion of payment. It's not at all clear what's going on; but the providers have always been used to sending clients off to charities to "volunteer" and have probably continued to do that without realising that things have changed.

There are numerous stories about the mandatory "community work" for people who have been unemployed for two years or more. There's a straightforward summary in the Yorkshire Post and the Guardian expands on the story. It's left to the Telegraph to give a platform to the ultra-right wing "think tank", the Policy Exchange, to crow about this "experiment with workfare". I seem to remember that when this was originally touted it was as 6 months of actual paid work. That was always going to be difficult. And there's no suggestion of payment now, just benefit. For those who wish to get to grips with the details, the DWP has helpfully published the provider guidance. The scheme is known, cheerfully, as CAP.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Work Programme failure - and mutuals

A4e appeared in the news yesterday on BBC as reporter Mark Easton went to Liverpool to look at how the Work Programme is working there. It was a frustratingly short piece, but got the essence of the problem. There are far too many people chasing far too few jobs. Two clients appeared; a young man with a criminal conviction, and a woman with qualifications. The only work available for the young man was shift work via an agency in a factory where conditions are notoriously bad. Easton put the point to the A4e manager that providers would inevitably cherry-pick, ignoring the hardest-to-help. All credit to the chap, he said that they didn't do that because it wouldn't be fair.

Patrick Butler of the Guardian keeps on the case with a piece about the failure of the WP to involve the voluntary sector as it's supposed to. A charity called New Deal of the Mind has a very good track record of getting young people into work in the arts and media. It is now signed up as a sub-contractor of A4e. But it hasn't had a single referral from A4e. Butler hasn't managed to get to the bottom of this situation, but there's some evidence that JCP isn't referring many young people onto the WP. The voluntary sector is caught in the trap of not being able to invoke the Merlin rules (which is supposed to ensure that primes treat their supply chain fairly) because they don't want to destroy the relationship they have, or want to have, with those primes.

There's an interesting piece on the Public Finance website. One of this government's big ideas was to push groups of public sector workers into forming "mutuals" - companies owned by their workers - and bidding for contracts. That last bit was rarely mentioned. But now the predictions of many people are starting to come true. A health sector mutual has lost out in bidding for a contract to a private company. This does not please Patrick Burns, director of something called the Employee Ownership Association. "If you don’t do something with the commissioning environment, then in five or ten years time you will not be dealing with mutuals, you will be dealing with (outsourcing companies) Serco, Capita and Virgin. Not that they are bad companies, but it’s not the point." Someone from the Cabinet Office pointed out that there are "expert mentors" in place to help "pathfinder mutuals". These mentors include A4e. At some point this is going to bring about another interesting situation.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Guardian wants stories

The Guardian has just posted a request for stories about unpaid internships and the like. "Private companies contracted by the government to get the long term unemployed back into work are getting people to work for highly profitable supermarkets for weeks or face having their dole docked. The Department of Work and Pensions has also confirmed that government run job centres are recommending that unemployed youth take up long term 'work experience' to help them gain further skills. This work can also be unpaid." There's some confusion here, I think, between internships and the "work activity" which has been part of New Deal and its successors for a long time. But they want stories, so perhaps some of my regular readers would like to respond.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Round-up, 3 November 2011

First, on Families Unlimited. The Guardian has published an amendment to its revelations about this, "Emma Harrison set up firm to pitch for government cash on project she devised". They now want to add, "Families Unlimited (the unincorporated Joint Venture set up by A4e and Gill Strachan Limited) has asked us to make clear that it was not set up solely for the purpose of bidding for European Social Fund (ESF) monies but rather to jointly develop and market their expertise in connection with the whole family/total person approach to worklessness including preparing for and submitting tenders for work with local Authorities and central government and if successful to undertake the provision of contracts. Further, we are happy to clarify that while Families Unlimited explored the possibility of acting as a sub contractor with a number of primes in bidding for ESF Funding they took a commercial decision not to do so." I'm not sure what this boils down to, other than that they are not now going for ESF sub-contracts.

There are a couple of conflicting takes on the Work Programme. One is an article in the Telegraph reporting Chris Grayling telling a business audience to use the WP providers as a kind of free recruitment agency. "They’ll get to know you and your business" he says. "They’ll get to know all the potential recruits. And they’ll bring you a small selection to choose from. Doesn’t that sound a better way to do business?” It sounds very reasonable, but is anyone else a little uneasy about the providers deciding who to put forward for a vacancy? A Labour MP, David Lammy, had a go at David Cameron about expecting the WP to be a cure-all when a tiny number of jobs are being chased by so many people. “You have described the work programme as ‘the biggest back to work programme since the 1930s’, but you know that the programme doesn’t create jobs, it merely links people up with vacancies. There are over 6,500 people unemployed in Tottenham and only 150 full time vacancies. What will your work programme do about that?” Cameron's response was to suggest that jobseekers look further afield, which didn't impress Lammy.

Google's revamp of its news feed means it's no longer possible to post links to stories. So here are a few which might interest readers. On 31 October the Telegraph reported "GPs to tell long-term jobless to find work". On 1 November the Express said, "Welfare plan 'may increase poverty'". On the same day the Guardian had a thoughtful piece called "What it's like to be young and looking for work in Britain" which looked at 10 real young people and their stories. Most important, perhaps, is a story from the BBC today. "Ministers 'consider alternatives' to 5.2 per cent benefits rise". Benefits should rise by that figure because it's the inflation figure on which all rises to benefits and pensions are based. But they think they can change the rules.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Family Champions - more confusion

The Children and Young People Now website has an article on Emma Harrison's Family Champions scheme which makes the whole picture even more confusing. It's supposed to consist mainly of volunteers. But the pilot areas are not keen. Westminster doesn't want any volunteers, costing time and money to train. Hull won't make a decision for at least 6 months. Shepway is similarly holding back. And these are the areas which already have paid "family champions" in place. The article doesn't mention the private contractors with the ESF money who will be doing a similar job. So much for David Cameron's "plan to transform the lives of England’s 120,000 most troubled families by 2015." It seems unlikely that there'll be that army of volunteers, of "Emmas" as it was originally put. Big society stuff.

And where did that figure of 120,000 families come from? Any round number is suspicious, and that one was just plucked out of the air. Certainly there are a lot of very troubled families, but they are best dealt with by the existing charities working with local authorities.

Monday, 31 October 2011


Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, blogs that he is encouraged by his "discussion with a local representative from A4E here in Blackpool, who are running the Government’s Work Programme scheme here in the North West. Whilst I often here (sic) that there are no jobs out there, it was refreshing to hear a slightly more positive point of view. No-one pretends that we are in the midst of economic boom, but the patient accumulation of business contacts is ensuring that A4E is becoming a one-stop shop for many employers with vacancies to fill." He goes as far as telling people looking for work who are not on the Work Programme that they should give A4e a call. Well, let's hope he's right.

But we won't know how successful A4e and the other providers are until next March. That secrecy is understandable up to a point. Even if someone got a job on the very first day of the Work Programme they won't yet have been in the job for 6 months. And the DWP is going to use the figures to compare the providers in a region and reduce the number of clients to an obviously failing provider, so a running commentary on the figures wouldn't be helpful. But it means that we have no idea whether the hype matches the reality. And lack of transparency is one of the themes of an article on the Morning Star website by Solomon Hughes. In the name of "opening up public services", he says, Cameron is handing over the funding of public services to private investors. Hughes describes how A4e has been hired to design the contracts for schemes funded by social impact bonds, something we highlighted recently. While this hasn't been a secret, it's not something that the average person would think sensible. The article is well worth reading.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Welfare State

The BBC2 programme on the Welfare State tonight is being so well promoted that we don't have to watch it. I'm listening to part of it now on the Today programme. And Left Foot Forward has already analysed why Humphrys is wrong. I don't intend to watch, but feel free to comment if you do. "The age of entitlement", he says, "must be brought to an end."

I reported that Emma Harrison's Family Champions scheme was to consist entirely of volunteers. But Poole council in Dorset "has obtained funding to become part of the Working Families Everywhere Programme which provides one to one support to help families overcome unemployment and return to work." Three of these people will have contracts running to March 2013. How will that fit with the ESF contract, which is being run down there by something called Paragon Concord International?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

"Lead Family Champion"

Something called the Family and Parenting Institute (a think tank) gives space for Emma Harrison to plug her Working Families Everywhere campaign. The familiar message has been refined somewhat. "The difference in the Working Families Everywhere approach is on setting a single goal, in this case employment for at least one family member, and dealing with the other needs on the path to, or subsequent to, that goal." There's a great deal about Emma's qualifications for the role, and then the final paragraph is a triumph of Emma-speak. But we learn that these "family champions" will all be volunteers. That was inevitable. But there's nothing in this piece about the ESF contracts for private companies to do this work for profit. How will the volunteers fit into this strange mix of local council employees and private companies?

Meanwhile, Mark Lovell has been using the Huffington Post to publicise his vision of young people getting themselves out of unemployment by starting their own enterprises. One would think that the Prince's Trust didn't exist.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Those "entrenched worklessness" ESF contracts out

The winners have been announced of those contracts which A4e couldn't bid for, after Emma Harrison convinced the government that her own "family champions" project was the way to go and said that she wouldn't make any money from it. The big winners are Reed, with 4 of the 12 areas. As usual, past failure is no bar to further contracts. EOS Works Ltd (formerly Fourstar) get 2 areas and there's one each for WISE Group, G4S, Skills Training UK, Twin Training International and Paragon Concord International. It will be interesting to see whether any of them will sub-contract to Families Unlimited, the outfit which Harrison set up with the former civil servant.
Another interesting aspect of this is the potential clash with Local Authority provision. Many LAs already have the organisation and staff in place and are doing this work, and yet are expected to pass families on to the private contractors. Most sensible people will think that the ESF money should have gone straight to the local councils, rather than have some sliced off for private profit.

You might be amused (or not) by the Daily Mail's take on all this.  Hysterical, vicious and inaccurate.  

Saturday, 15 October 2011

An A4e degree

Now A4e will soon be able to award degrees.

WalesOnline broke the story on 14 October in what was clearly a press release from Glyndwr University and A4e. "The company relationship is set to be launched in January with a means to achieving maximum participation in higher education from socially and economically disadvantaged sectors of society. It will take on innovative approaches to learning, tackling social exclusion and generational joblessness." There's more stuff about partnership, "re-skilling the workforce" and "transforming their lives". But it's not at all clear what the nature of this partnership is. For that, we had to wait till today and a piece in The Times Higher Education. "Glyndwr will train A4e staff so that they can give higher education to unemployed people" and will "validate higher education courses run by the international recruitment company, A4e." It's going to start in Wales but "Glyndwr might follow A4e’s business into Europe." Much the same piece appears in The Daily Post. The two organisations have not yet worked out the financial side of the deal but they hope to be up and running by January.

Let's not be entirely cynical. If this results in A4e being able to offer genuine degree-level courses to their unemployed clients, that can only be of benefit. The university, based in Wrexham, will not want to repeat the recent scandal surrounding the University of Wales which had been validating useless or non-existent courses for money. And A4e will want to be taken seriously in the higher education sector. But we'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Encouragement from Emma

Lots of publicity about the latest unemployment figures, particularly the number of young people without work. The Sun headlines "Nearly 1m young people out of work" and adds that the over-65s have been hit too. Who does the Sun go to for a comment? Yes, Emma Harrison, who is described as "Govt's family champion" rather than as someone who has become a multi-millionnaire from contracts to get people back to work (and who describes herself on Twitter as "welfare and social reform thinker and doer, tv and radio face and voice"). A4e isn't mentioned in the Sun. And what does Emma have to say? Nothing much. "Whatever the situation, you mustn't give up or give in," and similar words of encouragement. Nobody except the government talks about the Work Programme at the moment. None of the "case studies" cited by the Sun, or any of the media, refer to the WP or to any previous scheme.

The Work Programme was supposed to address all the problems, including training needs. The private providers would pay for skills training because it would increase clients' chances of getting work and so the companies' chances of making a profit. But Chris Grayling has acknowledged that that isn't going to work by announcing the setting-up of "sector-based work academies". However, there is no indication of who is to run these "academies" (silly word). The obvious answer would be Further Education Colleges, which already provide this skills training. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is yet another contract opportunity for the likes of A4e.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Success and failure

A Yorkshire publication, the Yorkshire Business Insider, reports that A4e's Emma Harrison is one of only ten women on its list of the 100 top working millionaires in the region. Hardly a surprise.

But there are more rumblings of discontent from the voluntary and other organisations which signed up to be sub-contractors in the Work Programme. Or haven't yet signed up, in some cases, where promised contracts have yet to be signed. Housing Associations were among the organisations which fell for the idea that they could earn money from the WP (although their tenants might think it was none of their business) but they are now finding that they are getting no referrals. An angry article on the Guardian's website reports that, "One housing association, Harvest Housing, was hoping for a small amount of work from A4E. But guess what? They got nothing and have chosen a different path." The writer, John Little, is less than complimentary about Emma Harrison and A4e. Patrick Butler, a regular Guardian columnist, writes on two reports by the voluntary sector and asks, "What is going wrong? Some primes claim they haven't been referred any "hard-to-reach" clients by jobcentres. It is said high numbers of appeals against work capability assessment tests have blocked the flow of these clients into the system. Others believe primes, overwhelmed by higher than expected numbers of jobless clients coming on to the books, are simply 'parking' vulnerable jobseekers and focusing solely on clients who are 'job ready' and easy to place." Butler cites the Social Market Foundation's concerns, back in August, that the WP was "at risk of financial collapse" and suggests that the most vulnerable are being pushed to the back of the queue.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The magical Work Programme

The unemployed have received the sort of publicity that's normal at party conference time. Particularly for the Conservatives they serve two purposes; they epitomise what's wrong with the country, and show how tough and effective the government intends to be. It's all nonsense, of course. An article on Left Foot Forward shows how it's all "recycled rhetoric". And the Guardian's cartoonist, Steve Bell, showed his opinion with a cartoon called Absence of Work. (It's a parody of a painting by Ford Madox Brown called Work, which can be seen here.) The cartoon on line has attracted well over 300 comments.

The solution, of course, is the Work Programme, which is being touted as "revolutionary". Grayling even called it a giant "employment dating sevice". But both the government and the providers must be nervous (not to mention the clients). There's no sign of a leap in the number of jobs available, and without job vacancies there can be no results and no profits. The government has staked everything on this model of contracting - payment by results - and will not want to row back on that. Another problem is highlighted in an article on People Management. People working for the providers could be expected to reshuffle to another provider if their employer loses out on the contract in that area. But more than half of those made redundant by the process have decided to get out of the sector altogether. That loss of experienced staff can only lead to a lack of appropriately qualified people advising clients.

Still, right-wing politicians and their friends in the media continue to believe that if you get tougher on the unemployed and reduce the minimum wage you will, magically, get them to work.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

More on that £300k contract

Private Eye has pointed out that the £300k contract for A4e is about more than just investigating the effectiveness of SIBs. It's "to design the kind of contracts for which it will itself bid". The government is "putting its main welfare contractor in charge of designing welfare contracts". The Eye likens this to the PFI shambles. The contract documents can be found on the Contracts Finder website. They include A4e's proposal, and there are some interesting bits in that. "We were pioneers in implementing PBR (payment by results) contracts to deliver employment outcomes in Israel, and used what we learnt to influence UK government thinking in the development of both the flexible New Deal and the Work Programme." (That was the Israel contract which was so controversial because the British government was supposed to be against involvement in the occupied territories but helped A4e get the business.) The document goes on to boast about their " experience and expertise acquired over many years" and their investment in "specialist expertise to support whole-family based intervention at local level, through Families Unlimited." Other documentation shows that A4e will be involved in "knowledge transfer", and they will “organise a seminar to discuss lessons learnt with lead officials in Central Government” and prepare a “how-to guide to be used by future commissioners". Could a company get closer to government than that? Worth being excluded from the ESF contracts, perhaps. They will probably, though not certainly, be excluded from bidding on the 4 contracts they are currently helping to design, in Birmingham, Leicestershire, Hammersmith and Westminster, but when it's rolled out, it will all be up for grabs.

Meanwhile Roy Newey has been at a "Global Skills Summit" in India, where "A4e India has been working closely with the Government of India for delivering globally benchmarked skills for the bottom of pyramid clients on a pan-India basis. A4e India aims to create a Credible, collaborative, competency based and transparent skills training system with the government, private and third sector organisation partnerships." Also taking part was "Rt. Hon. David Blunkett, Member of Parliament, UK and A4e advisor".

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A £300k contract

We mentioned an A4e company, "A4e Insight", first in November 2009. This "research and consultancy arm" of A4e had provided consultancy on two projects, money guidance and "train to gain", in which it had a large financial interest. In February 2010 we wrote about another Insight consultancy project in which it had provided "due diligence" research on a competitor training and skills company. This curious task of selling consultancy on things in which you have, or may soon have, a vested interest continued when, in February this year, A4e was named as a mentor to start-up public sector mutuals. Now we have a report of another contract for A4e Insight. It's getting £300,000 from the Office for Civil Society to investigate the effectiveness of social impact bonds in four pilot areas. (See the Third Sector website)
This is Big Society stuff, the OCS first describing the project in August this year. We were told then that "The OCS is not funding the projects, but has made up to £300,000 available to offer technical support to the councils in order to design the new tender documents." Is this the same £300k going to A4e? Mark Lovell has written enthusiastically about SIBs. Does this compromise the objectivity of the research?

Friday, 23 September 2011

More stuff in more places

A "national celebration of enterprise" has been held in Sheffield, with Peter Jones of "Dragons' Den" as the chief attraction. It's a big annual event apparently. There were government ministers there and - you guessed it - A4e's Emma Harrison, who "was introduced by Sheffield MP David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary". She "told the audience about her schooldays as 'the naughty girl' who failed her A-levels She set an ambition to become the world’s largest organisation that improves people’s lives with a business plan focusing on scope and geography – or 'more stuff in more places'. This year, her company is set to turn over £250m." (Yorkshire Post) I'm sure it was inspiring.

Most of the Work Programme prime contractors have, in the past, been content to let A4e do all the publicity-seeking. But it's a competitive business, and some of them are now honing their own PR. Ingeus (Australian) isn't shy. And now we have Maximus (American) putting out PR stuff about how they got the best results in Flexible New Deal. They were "top-ranked provider" - but nowhere in the piece are there any figures. I suspect that the figures for FND were so bad all round that no one wants to boast about them.

Emma Harrison once said that she had wanted to convert A4e into a mutual organisation but had found that the obstacles were too great. Perhaps she should talk to the people from Prospects, which has been doing welfare-to-work and similar stuff for 16 years and now has a WP contract. It started out as a company limited by guarantee (no shareholders) and has now turned itself into an employee-owned mutual.

In the run-up to the WP contracts, CDG was arguing, and organising conferences, for an army of volunteers to mentor the unemployed. It's now a sub-contractor of Maximus in West London, and is advertising for a "volunteer co-ordinator". It will be interesting to see how volunteers will be enticed to help make profits for business.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

No news, good news and questions

It's all quiet at the moment. As always, a subject is in the news for a while then drops out as if it had never been. G4S is advertising for an ESF Project Manager for the new contracts and has published its plans for the different regions. They don't seem to include Families Unlimited. Meanwhile the Working Families Everywhere website carries news, dated 13 September, of the Advisory Board meeting on 6 September, and promises to publish the minutes of the meeting when they're available. Should be interesting. But are we to assume that Emma Harrison's pet project will go ahead even when the ESF contracts are awarded? Will it just be volunteers, the paid people having been sacked or sent over to the contractors; and where will those volunteers stand in relation to the contractors?

A4e's Roy Newey has been getting excited about business prospects in Saudi Arabia and Latvia. But back in Britain the Radio 4 "Report" on the Work Programme brought out the fact that we can have no figures and no real idea of what's going on. It seems that the contractors are being deluged with clients and don't have time to do anything constructive with them. But they can still earn money. Some of those clients will get jobs - what Chris Grayling called the dead weight figure - owing nothing whatever to the private companies, but those companies will still get the payment.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Feedback wanted

Perhaps my regular readers would care to check out my new website, Getting a job. I've put a link to it on the right as well. Let me know (politely, please) what I've missed out or got wrong, or whether it's a complete waste of time. You can comment through the contact form on the site or here.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

"The Report" on the Work Programme

Radio 4's "The Report" tonight on the Work Programme had a straightforward thesis: it is unlikely to succeed when it is being delivered by the same private companies which have failed on all previous welfare-to-work schemes.
They homed in on the Pathways to Work programme which failed so dismally for those companies. A4e and Reed, you remember, were interrogated by the Public Accounts Committee on why they had performed so much worse than Jobcentre Plus. Now, A4e's Nigel Lemmon ( Executive Director A4e Welfare) says that they did better in some areas than in others; but the programme pointed out that this was only on their own measures of performance. (Lemmon later on said that all the criticism of A4e was unfair.) Dan Finn, who is a professor of social inclusion, said that JCP did better because they had been doing the work for years - er, yes - and because they were in competition with the private sector. (No evidence was given for this, because there is no evidence.)
Then we got Hayley Taylor. But what she said was actually true; people are not realistic and the government has no comprehension of people's lives. A report from the DWP says that half the people on benefits are not looking for work. I haven't seen the report, so I don't know what that figure includes. There was an interview with Colin in Leeds, a graphics designer unemployed for 3 years, who described the poor facilities and lowest-common-denominator approach he has experienced on New Deal and FND. Then Hayley Taylor openly criticised her old employer, A4e, for the first time. She knew it was hopeless when she was faced with an 18-year-old who didn't want to work and a redundant 55-year-old who was desperate for a job and was expected to deliver the same lesson to them in the same class. The impression was given that this was the reason she left A4e, whereas she seems to have left to star in her own show. Anyway, the programme pointed out that much of the criticism they had heard was about A4e, which seemed to have an unenviable reputation. Yet it got the second-largest share of the WP contracts. We heard from Martin who is with A4e for the second time; he was shattered to hear them telling him that his CV was no good, when it had been done by the same A4e people the first time around. He said he felt he was serving a prison sentence.
The presenter said that they had spoken to numerous people on the WP who feel that they are being ignored because there are too many people on the programme. They also complained about assumptions that every client was illiterate, innumerate and stupid. One commentator said that the big companies had all bid for the WP because that was all there was, and they all assumed that the government will have to step in and renegotiate when it goes wrong. Chris Grayling said that won't happen. The CE of the WISE Group complained that they had lost out on the contracts and had to lay off 40% of their staff. The presenter then said that they had a confidential document which shows that Ingeus offered a 60% discount for part of the contract, and they were not the only providers which had done this. Grayling denied that the government was putting price before quality. It was pointed out that only half the promised 40% of the work went to small companies and voluntary sector, and there were fears that the primes would cherry-pick the easiest customers and pass the hardest on to their sub-contractors. Finally, and significantly, the presenter said that everyone they had spbout oken to in their research wanted a job. All in all, this was a worthy attempt to present a serious programme about the Work Programme.

Here's the document about A4e's "Families Unlimited" project to get sub-contracts for the new workless families contracts. There's an American organisation with the same name. Perhaps they didn't know.

I'm thinking of setting up a website with practical advice for the unemployed; jobsearch, application forms, CVs, interviews etc. What do you think?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Business as usual

Anyone who thought that A4e's embarrassment over the workless families contracts would prove a turning point in the company's fortunes is probably guilty of wishful thinking. It's business as usual. Roy Newey is in India with a trade delegation of training organisations, including some FE colleges, and he is quoted as saying, "eastern India provides exciting opportunities to further strengthen India-UK cooperation in skills and education sector." Mark Lovell has been in the US. I suspect that Emma Harrison will not be giving interviews for a while; but there's a piece in the Sun, (dated 1 September) which is straightforward PR for her; and the Sun, sadly, has a bigger circulation than the Guardian. And now the BBC is running an item about research into "problem families" which reminds us that Cameron "appointed Emma Harrison as a 'family champion' to lead a drive to get workless families back into employment" with not even a nod to the Guardian revelations. We won't get to know whether Harrison's cosy relationship with MPs has been damaged, but it won't affect the company's ability to win contracts in the future.

The Financial Times previews the Radio 4 programme on the Work Programme (Thursday 15 September, 8.00 pm). Chris Grayling denies that there will be any renegotiation of the contracts, although "providers now say privately that they intend to make cost savings if they are unable to meet targets, raising the spectre that very little will be spent on helping those going through the scheme." And with the sort of irony which leaves one shaking one's head in disbelief, the programme quotes Hayley Taylor as saying that the WP is "crude and often ineffective". " “Grouping people together is just not going to work because what someone who has been long term unemployed needs and what someone who has been newly made redundant needs are two totally different things,' she said." If that's the level of insight of the programme, with all those staff and clients whose views were solicited ignored, then it won't be worth listening to.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Guardian article - questions

On 7 September Emma Harrison tweeted: "First meet of cross party advisory group who are committed to helping all families become working families. Feisty determined bunch." The following day she said: "So good. I am seeing a real determination at cabinet level to help turn around the lives of 120,000 families by supporting them into work." And at the time she knew that she stood to make money from this.
If you haven't read the Guardian piece please do so. Now, let's assume that at the time Harrison set up her Working Families Everywhere project she didn't know that the government would come up with contracts, handed out to the usual suspects, to do the work. Perhaps she envisaged only that local councils would fund it with community budgets and she could bask in the prestige. But that would surely have been naive. This government's dogma is all about private profit. So perhaps she saw no hindrance to A4e getting in on the action. But in all the publicity she was manoevred into saying that she would not be making any money out of it. There is some confusion in the article. "Harrison told the Guardian she withdrew from bidding when the government announced the first tranche of contracts, worth £200m, in February. She said she had accepted the unpaid role but had been 'shocked' to learn there would be hundreds of millions of pounds in funding. 'Chris Grayling told me he had got £200m. It was a bit of a shock … I thought: 'Oh crikey, that makes me feel a bit awkward. We will have to withdraw (from the bidding).'" How could A4e have already bid before the contracts were announced? What had they bid for? Am I missing something?
But there was a way out of this dilemma, a way to make money. Set up something under a different name and go for sub-contracts. Not as lucrative, but better than nothing. The "partnership" with the "former civil servant who until this year was running the Department for Education's 'support services for families with multiple needs'" will not surprise those who follow the revolving door of business, civil servants and politicians in this government's administration. And the DWP is right, there is no legal impediment to this arrangement. But it could be a PR disaster. Cameron may well want to distance himself from Harrison, and the "advisory group" could decide that they've been conned. As for the families who are supposed to be the beneficiaries - well, they're irrelevant.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Stop press - "utterly unacceptable"

A report in the Guardian today is a must-read for anyone interested in A4e.
"Emma Harrison set up firm to pitch for government cash on project she devised: The PM's 'families champion' helped to design job programme for troubled households for which her company has now bid" is the headline. It shows that Harrison, having said that A4e could not bid for the ESF contracts for helping workless families because it would be a conflict of interest, has set up a firm called "Families Unlimited", pitching itself as a potential sub-contractor for the work.

I await press (and your) comments on this - but read it!

The Work Programme proceeds

The publicity surrounding Emma Harrison and her project is over, and attention turns back to the Work Programme. A4e continues to generate PR for itself, helped by the government. The Oxford Mail published a touching story about Chris Grayling's visit to A4e in Oxford and how he heard how "Furniture maker Shane Clarke got a new job four hours after visiting a 'giant employment dating service' in Oxford." The article details several other people who found work quickly; but the manager at Oxford wouldn't give figures for just how many people had found jobs since June, because that was "commercially sensitive". And the government doesn't have to give those figures until next year. It's not all plain sailing. In Runcorn and Widnes, where the WP is run by Ingeus and A4e, there have been delays caused by "data security issues" with A4e and a higher number of starts than expected. The article concludes with the statement that "So far 31 jobseekers have been seen (by A4e) but only 22% are considered ready for the workplace." This notion of "job-ready" appears to be common to all the providers, and up to a point it's sensible. But it does brand a huge number of people as not job-ready without detailing why.

Much has been made of the position of the voluntary sector (or Third Sector as some organisations prefer to be known) in the WP. Their involvement was guaranteed. Many were not enthusiastic, but needed the funding that sub-contracts could give them, and didn't want to see their work taken over by someone else. Now, various groups are feeling let down, with the work not materialising. One charity, Crisis, is particularly unhappy. Its Welfare Network Manager writes that "The reality of the Work Programme is proving to be quite different from what the government promised." He (or she) doesn't specify which prime they've been dealing with, but as well as getting much less than they believe is necessary to support a homeless person into employment but, "In addition, one contracter would only pay us for engaging with a client and job entry (the hard and expensive bit) whilst they would then themselves support the client for the year in work (the easy bit with the highest payment from DWP). There were also requests that we work with their clients using our own funding streams - with no financial reward for doing so."

The BBC is running a programme on Radio 4 next Thursday at 8.00 pm on the Work Programme. There's no indication of what line they're going to take. It can only be anecdotal. Let's hope it's fair.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


I am genuinely puzzled. Emma Harrison's stunt over Working Families Everywhere and family champions completely obscured the fact that contracts are coming out to provide such people with ESF money. And now Kent County Council are advertising for them in what they're calling a pilot until March 2013. The advert uses Harrison's slogans. But it also says that "there may be scope for an extension (after March 2013) depending on new funding becoming available". So when and where do these new DWP contracts apply? Since these people are currently employed by the councils, and would be TUPE'd over to the private contractors, there would seem to be nothing in it for Harrison except publicity; unless the volunteers she's trying to recruit are under her control, and that seems unlikely.

The website Children and Young People Now has tried to get some clarity from Harrison, but without much success. However, the piece does solve the puzzle of why Kent is joining in. Baroness Debbie Stedman-Scott is chief executive of charity Tomorrow's People and member of the Working Families Everywhere advisory board, and her group works in Maidstone, Kent. Helen Dent, chief executive of charity Family Action, repeats her scepticism about the whole scheme.
It would be useful if the journalists who are paid to research these things would sort it out. And pigs might fly.

There are times, just briefly, when I wonder whether I'm being unfair. Perhaps the bosses of A4e are genuinely more interested in helping people than in making money. Mark Lovell tweets: "Don't like profit motive - set up a social business and grow it globally. Compete, impact and force corporates and governments to change". And he's about to start an "Improving People's Lives" Fund. All very worthy. And unrecognisable to many of A4e's staff and clients. Another of his tweets is really interesting: "3,800 staff in our business - 63% female:male staffing ratio, higher outside UK. My 'boss' Emma and I have worked together for 20 yrs". Note the quotes around "boss". It has long been difficult to work out Harrison's real role in the company. There is a board of directors and a chief executive, so how much power does she have? Perhaps it's just useful to have her out there getting the publicity and cosying up to politicians while others get on with running the company.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Libel and an appeal

If I was still a jobseeker (and thank God I'm not) I would be trying to instigate legal action against the Daily Express for libel. Yesterday they had to tone down a vicious piece about "workshy Britain". Today they've come back with two vile little pieces instead of one. One headed "4m Scrounging Families in Britain" reports the latest figures, with nothing whatever to justify the "scroungers" label. They quote their pals the Taxpayers' Alliance (which is simply a Tory-funded lobby group) on the subject of "over-generous benefits". Not content with that, there's an equally nasty piece headed "400 jobs up for grabs .... but nobody wants them". Apparently it's in Penzance. "A spokesman at the town’s Jobcentre blamed our soft-touch welfare state which has taken away the incentive to find work." This chap is not named, unsurprisingly. There's no analysis of what these vacancies are actually for - how many are not real jobs, for instance, or whether they require skills or experience which no one in the area has. No, it's just another way to traduce the unemployed. Just what is the editor's motive in this maniacal campaign?

I've been contacted by a Radio 4 journalist who is working on a programme about the government’s Work Programme, and wants to hear from people who are currently doing courses run by private providers such as A4E, Ingeus, Reed in Partnership, Seetec etc., or have recently been on FND. She would be interested to hear about the experiences of both clients and current or former staff of all the providers. Her email address is and her telephone number is 07706154283. She assures me that all contacts will be treated in strict confidence.

Not entirely unrelated is a request from me to a few people who have posted comments on this blog in April, May and July this year which I have not published. Doncaster and Nottingham were mentioned. Please get in touch with me via a comment I will NOT publish.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Keep up, Private Eye

It's good to see that Private Eye is still on A4e's case in the latest edition. But I'm beginning to think that the magazine is following this blog! In a piece entitled "A4E, B for balls" they point out, following Cameron citing Emma Harrison as the answer to all our problems, that A4e's record is far from good. They cite the less-than-brilliant Ofsted reports and the dreadful Pathways results. But the Eye is slipping. They say that Cameron was "wildly overstating Harrison's role" in the Working Families Everywhere scheme, which aims to find jobs for just 500 parents in the three areas, rather than the 120,000 families that Cameron talked about. Like Cameron, the Eye isn't aware of the contracts on the table using ESF money. And they talk about the 5 new contracts A4e has just won to deliver the "New Enterprise Allowance", querying the qualifications of providers like A4e and Avanta to do this when their experience is in dealing with employment rather than self-employment. Well yes, but what about all the other things that A4e do, in health and education?

The Guardian got into trouble for calling A4e a "social enterprise" and had to apologise. But they've done it again, in a comment piece by Merrick Cockell on Tuesday. The vast majority of people don't know the difference, but those who do are concerned that the reality of A4e as a private, profit-making company is being eroded by the ignorance of journalists.

The Work Programme is getting a lot of attention at the moment, with Chris Grayling telling us how it's going to save the country. But there's a surprisingly sympathetic piece in the Sun about the difficulty facing women with children trying to get back into work. There's a rather different attitude in the Express. The newsfeeds this morning led to a piece headlined "Workshy Britain" and starting "Britain's workshy culture was shown in all its glory today after the number of homes where no one is working held at nearly 4 million." Strangely, by late afternoon the link led to a revised article headed "Four million households live just on benefits". The invective has been toned down considerably, although we still read that "The figures will serve to place added pressure on Employment minister Chris Grayling to get Britain's workshy back into employment."

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The bandwagon

Lots of people are leaping aboard the bandwagon of solutions to unemployed trouble-makers, and displaying the usual ignorance, arrogance or naivete. All three are evident in a piece on by Rebecca Ellinor, who reports that the DWP believes it has "struck what it calls a ground-breaking commercial deal, with minimum cost to the tax-payer, and says this work is now an exemplar of procurement" with the Work Programme. It describes the speed and efficiency of the process; but neglects to mention that it's a procument process which ignores past failures by providers. Does any commercial enterprise operate like this?

The Financial Times takes a more intelligent stance in a piece by Chris Tighe. It highlights the way in which smaller, especially voluntary, organisations have been squeezed out of the Work Programme.

Then there are Social Impact Bonds. We reported on these some time ago, because A4e's Mark Lovell is very keen on them; and someone who is promoting these was on the Today programme a few days ago. The Cabinet Office describes them thus: "A major trial of an innovative new way to fund intensive help for families blighted by anti-social behaviour, crime, addiction and poor education was announced by Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society today. Social Impact Bonds lets people invest in social projects to address these issues and be paid a return if the projects are successful. Up to £40million could be raised by four Social Impact Bond pilots launched in Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, Birmingham and Leicestershire."

The Express, of course, shows its customary thoughtfulness with the headline "War on the Scroungers". It's actually commenting on a report by a think-tank, the IPPR, which has been out for some. And it's not quite what the Express portrays it as. The report says that those who have been unemployed for a year should have to take minimum-wage jobs; but these would be created by the government. And that's an admission that the jobs are not there unless the government creates them. The same IPPR report gets a very different treatment in the Telegraph, which focusses on the prediction that "around 100,000 people over 50 who lost their jobs at the start of Britain's economic crisis are now at risk of being forced to retire earlier than they planned. That will leave them living in retirement with a lower pension than they had hoped for."

It's left to the Guardian to strike a cynical note, with Alex Clark's piece inspired by Emma Harrison's publicity drive on family champions: "Be careful how you preach the benefits of the work ethic". It's a thoughtful critique of Harrison and her admirers, and, as always, the comments posted under the article are well worth reading.

The same can't be said for a piece in the Sheffield Telegraph, which is always sycophantic towards Harrison and A4e. Its article, "It’s not because they don’t want a job - it’s that they haven’t got a clue what to do next", is pure PR, and repeats the stuff she has said in her radio interviews.

I expect this bandwagon to roll on for a while yet.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Today Programme interview

You're having your breakfast calmly when up pops Emma Harrison. There was a disgraceful interview on the Today programme this morning, Justin Webb completely without research or knowledge and pretty much fawning on the woman. The clich├ęs were all there. "Poking" came up again. When Webb seemed about to murmur a challenge she talked over him. Webb said it was a "fantastic idea" but what happens when some members of families don't co-operate? She didn't tackle that, unsurprisingly, just talked about the benefits of working with whole families rather than individuals. She said that she had a cross-party parliamentary group advising her, and that all of them were going to be told that they had to volunteer to do help. Webb said she was a persuasive person - she said she was heading up a campaign.
It was as bad as it gets. Lovely free publicity. When are we going to get real journalism backed by real research?

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Guardian piece by John Harris

There's a comment piece in the Guardian by John Harris which will appeal to many of our readers. Of interest, too, are the comments which follow it, showing how the public is generally unsympathetic unless they have personal experience.

We can see clearly the confusion in the government's thinking over the unemployed, particularly over Mandatory Work Activity. On the one hand, it is supposed to help people back into the discipline of work and give them experience useful in securing a job. On the other hand, it is ensuring that people don't get benefits without having to work for them. Is this work experience or community service?

The piece also highlights the inevitability of employer exploitation. With a pool of free labour to draw on, some employers who want only unskilled labour will happily cut their wage bill even further.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Questions and doubts

The papers are mostly cynical this morning about Emma Harrison's scheme, going with the "gimmick" line. The Yorkshire Post reports this but is slightly confused, saying that the initiative "will be" piloted in Hull, Blackpool and Westminster (it's already up an running in at least two of those areas). They have a quote from Harrison: “The thought scares a lot of politicians [who are asked to take part] because they don’t know how to do it but I have said ‘I’ll show you once and for all how this is done’. And they are very enthusiastic.” But the headline on the article is "Middle class in Hull urged to ‘adopt’ a jobless family". The only person from the Hull City Council they could find to comment was the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, who "cautiously" welcomed the initiative.

The next time anyone interviews Emma Harrison there are three questions I would like them to ask her:
  1. Has A4e bid for the contracts the DWP is putting out, to use European Social Fund money to pay private companies to run the same scheme that you're promoting? Are you trying to pre-empt these contracts by getting your scheme up and running first?
  2. You have argued in the past for "super-contracts" in which a private company would run all the services in a local authority area. Is this scheme a step on the way to that?
  3. Given your company's record of missing targets by some distance in previous welfare-to-work contracts, why do you believe you will be any more successful with this?
There's a report out today by the Social Market Foundation, claiming that the Work Programme is at risk of financial collapse. They use the performance of the providers in Flexible New Deal to forecast that the DWP's expectations for the WP are over-optimistic. If the providers can't meet the minimum targets they will lose the contracts. They seem to be arguing for a better deal for the providers. But in an interview on the Today programme this morning Chris Grayling claimed that the WP was different from FND because providers have much greater freedom "to do what works". (This is disingenuous. They had the freedom under FND, and indeed under New Deal, to pay for such things as skills training.) Grayling said that the providers knew what they were doing when they bid for the contracts, and that there will be no re-negotiation. One interesting point was his statement that the minimum performance standard must be greater than the "dead weight" figure, those who would be expected to get jobs without any input from contractors.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

That interview

Okay, I wasted half an hour of my life listening to the Radio 5 Live interview [see a comment on the previous post for the link]. I agree with those who commented on it after my previous post.

Anita Anand was the right person to do the interview; Harrison has been on The Daily Politics twice so she knows what to ask. Anand was as sceptical as she could be without being downright hostile. The 19-year-old Tottenham man interviewing other young people was a good idea; most of them put the trouble down to the cuts rather than to "broken families". It was such a shame that, at the end of the piece, Harrison was allowed to interrupt and talk over the lad when he raised the point that, although she came across as having good intentions, her people didn't know how his communities lived, and again when he challenged her on "broken families" and being non-political.
Harrison insisted several times to Anand that she was "non-political". It was pointed out that she had dealt with politicians of both governments and she was asked if she had seen a difference. Yes, Brown's government was limited by what his people thought that they could do in practice. Now, she said, all ministers and advisers are going to take on a family. Who came up with the figure of 120,000 workless families? Government, she insisted, and then tried to bring it back to the personal. Anand queried why she was distancing herself from the politics of it. Again, Harrison said she was non-political and just improves people's lives around the world. How? The word "poking" was used three times. It's what happens to families when a lot of different agencies are working with them. Pushed by Anand on the how, Harrison told of the family she had spent an hour and a half with then suggested they go and help a charity down the road. This had been the start of an amazing transformation.

Anand was sceptical to the point of sarcasm, bringing it back to how exactly she, Anand, or someone like her, could get someone a job. There was a silly, but revealing, exchange in which Harrison wanted to show that there are jobs at the BBC (there aren't) and then suggested going into the shop down the road. It wasn't exactly convincing. anand turned to the money. Was harrison doing this for free. He company had made £200 million pounds. That was turnover, said Harrison, not profit, and local authorities were employing the family champions. Then we got the attempt by the young Tottenham man to question her, which she didn't allow. She said that she thought that people who had wrecked their communities should have to put it right.

Of the two text messages I heard quoted at the end of the piece (perhaps there were more at the end of the programme) one criticised Anand's negativity, the other said that Harrison was living in cloud-cuckoo land. I think this demonstrates the difficulty for TV and radio journalists. They are not allowed to go on the attack (unless they're called Andrew Neil) and so their subjects get away with it. Print journalists could do so much better, but don't bother.
The press coverage today is majoring on the fact that the scheme has been attacked as "gimmicky" and that "there appeared to be some confusion in Whitehall over the plan with employment minister Chris Grayling - who was also named among the volunteers - saying that he was not involved. 'I was rather surprised when I read this one. It was news to me that I was going to be in there,' he told Sky News." Still, Tim Loughton MP, a minister in the Department for Education, is signed up. And, gimmicky or not, it's great publicity.

PS: Anita Anand returned to the subject of family champions on The Westminster Hour, but the Tory MP wouldn't actually endorse the idea.