Saturday, 26 February 2011

Emma Harrison on The Moral Maze

You probably missed Emma Harrison on Radio 4's The Moral Maze, (Wednesday, repeated Saturday) but you can find it on iplayer. The topic was the role of charities, and Emma was there in her role as Chair of the FSI. Michael Buerk described A4e as a charity, a mistake which Harrison herself corrected. She said that when charities get too big they get crushed and lose their mission. She works with small charities which are not looking to the state to support them. The most healthy charities do both state-supported and donor-supported work. She says she has always been led by her mission, but charities can get diverted by going after a pot of money. Michael Portillo asked whether charities should displace the state. Harrison said that whoever was best at it should do the work. Charities are not the only organisations with a moral heart. Can charities be unaccountable, asked Portillo. No, everyone is accountable, she replied.
I found the confusion about whether A4e is a charity quite disturbing. Harrison had a valid point about big charities losing their mission; but it was another "me and my mission" opportunity, and she took it. Once again, there were no hard questions, and Harrison has now become the spokesperson for small charities. Ironic.

Latvia and mutuals

Roy Newey's trip to Riga in Latvia got a write-up on a Latvian website which, thanks to Google Translate, gives us an insight into what A4e, and, apparently, Scottish employers, really think of the unemployed. "In his [Newey's] view, the main task is to teach the unemployed new skills, but to help them regain self-confidence and a belief that they can find work and be useful to employees. A4e even helping people clean up their appearance. [Newey] tells about some of the experiments conducted in Scotland, where a single action along been to bring together long-term unemployed and employers. 'Later, employers were asked whether they would like to employ these people, and if not, why not. Initially they said that those unemployed lack the necessary skills and experience, but after a few glasses of wine confessed that the real reason is the external effect - people are too fat, bad smell, he is unseemly tattoos, etc.. Appearance is very important.'" Well, well.
Back home, Jonty Olliff-Cooper has been tweeting to drum up business for a conference. "Looking forward to our A4e mutuals conference next week. If you are interested in starting a public sector mutual, come along." Mutuals are part of David Cameron's strategy for abolishing the public sector. Groups of council employees will form themselves into co-operatives and then bid for contracts for the work. So what has that got to do with A4e? These "mutuals" will need advice and help in setting up their companies. They may well find it useful to be attached to a private company. After all, even if they get the contracts the first time around, they will lose out thereafter to the likes of A4e.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

At home and abroad

A4e boasts about its presence in 10 countries, and now the British Embassy in Latvia is pushing for business there for the company. There's nothing unusual in that, of course; embassies promote trade. Roy Newey is giving a seminar in Riga today. On Monday he was sharing ideas with 20 Chinese visitors. Meanwhile, Mark Lovell has been dining with Kenneth Clarke (the Justice Secretary), hatching "some cunning plans" on global social entrepreneurship with Doug Richards, and working on "a new partnership to deliver ethically priced financial services to people on low incomes". (He did say he wasn't giving up on the bank idea!) Emma Harrison may be getting the publicity, but Lovell is working behind the scenes.

Local councils are currently busy setting their budgets, working out what to cut. Where they have contracts with private companies, they can't cut them without incurring big financial penalties, so it's the voluntary organisations which have to be axed. That's one of the many reasons why David Cameron's "privatise everything" plans are so misguided. Yet A4e bosses are signatories to a letter to Francis Maude dated 10 January, in which Maude "is urged to consider ‘critical means by which we could transform public services through a new shared endeavour between local authorities and private sector providers, in the context of the public’s changing needs and expectations, and the fiscal and service challenges’ facing the coalition," according to Council leaders and many other companies have also signed the letter which "considers the role the private sector could play in ‘modernising’ public services, but recognises the important ‘role of the voluntary and community sectors as well as the wider public sector’." The points made in the letter are set out in detail on the LocalGov website, and No. 10 are said to have welcomed it.

Monday, 21 February 2011


It must be party time at A4e at the moment. David Cameron has set out his plans to abolish the public sector and privatise all public services. Local councils will exist simply to channel our money into private companies under contracts to provide just about everything. Those companies will be expected to use the voluntary sector, which will make things cheaper - assuming that there are still volunteers willing to assist in this enterprise. In Cameronland (a very different place from where most of us live), "This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly."

A4e has been building up a presence in the education and health sectors and many more, and so will be well placed to snap up contracts, but Capita and Serco are ahead of them, and there are plenty of other companies in the queue for this lucrative work. I don't remember ever being asked whether I wanted this to happen. I don't remember voting for it. I don't want any more of my money going into private profits.

For those who think it's okay, remember what happened in 2007. Severe flooding hit many areas, and large numbers of council workers turned out, voluntarily, to give practical help on their council's behalf. What private company will we turn to the next time something similar happens?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Welfare Reform

The welfare reform bill is out, and with it the expected rhetoric about ending the dependency culture. The universal credit is the most important aspect, and few will quarrel with it. The problem is that the public are being led to believe that everyone could work if they really wanted to, and that there are many thousands of workshy scroungers out there who have to be bludgeoned into jobs. Turning down a job offer continues to be the major crime, despite the fact that the only job offers anyone ever turns down is the casual work through agencies.

Cameron poured scorn yesterday on the failure of FND (although his figures have been disputed) yet the government has decided to extend the contracts for another 3 months to bridge the gap to the start of the Work Programme, and is going to give the WP contracts to the same failed providers.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Big Society

While it's quiet on the A4e front (though I've no doubt there's lots going on) let's consider the Big Society.

It has become clear what Cameron means by this. The aim is to get rid of the public sector altogether and replace it with, initially, organisations which are cheap because they use free labour on the front line; with co-operatives of former public sector workers which will soon be swallowed up or ousted by private companies; and with "social enterprises" which are very little different from private companies. Local authorities will be stripped of even more powers, and will dwindle away.

Is it giving power back to the people? Emphatically not. At the moment people have a right to services, which are paid for out of taxation. As Karl Marx said (and I'm not a Marxist!): To each according to his need, from each according to his ability. The Big Society means it will be pot luck whether you have any services at all, and those you have will be delivered for profit. There will, of course, be plenty of "volunteers" to keep things running; the redundant public sector workers.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Contact - and quiet

I had a comment yesterday from someone claiming to be a journalist and wanting to make contact with me. That person can send me a comment (obviously not for publication) with his or her email address and I will get in touch.

There's nothing much to report at the moment. Emma Harrison hasn't given an interview for over a week. Perhaps her PR people have advised a period of quiet, or perhaps she's on holiday. There was, however, a piece in the Guardian last week by Rhian Beynon, who is head of policy and campaigns at Family Action. This is the charity, you remember, which is not best pleased at Emma's latest project, the Family Champions, or Working Families Everywhere, because they've been doing this work without fanfare for years. Beynon is particularly concerned in the article with the mental health strategy, or lack of it, to support children. And she is very sceptical about Harrison's capacity in this area.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Problems and opportunities

More problems over the introduction of the Work Programme have been brought up at a Work and Pensions Committee hearing. A4e's executive director Rob Murdoch is chair of the ERSA, the industry's trade body, and he expressed concern over the 3-month gap between the old contracts ending and the new ones starting. The big companies can cope with this, but the smaller ones can't, and are having to lay off staff. "Social enterprises" are concerned, too, that they are being signed up by the prime contractors simply as window-dressing, because the contracts demand it, rather than with a genuine prospect of involvement. What seemed so simple to the government is rapidly unravelling.

Meanwhile, A4e's Mark Lovell (who is "in charge of A4e", according to the Spectator - but then the company seems to have a number of bosses) says that we're wrong about there being no jobs. In the Spectator interview he assures us that, "We have never been in an economy where there aren’t suitable jobs for the people who walk through our doors." He quotes the ONS figure of 500,000 vacancies in the Jobcentres, and says that this is only one third of the total. This will come as a surprise to those who know that a great many of the vacancies in the Jobcentres are not jobs at all, but spurious "home working opportunities" and adverts by agencies. Still, Lovell is clear about A4e's value. "During a recession you tend to find that employers often do more by word-of-mouth recruitment. The role of brokers who put people in touch with these opportunities is even more important during the recessionary cycle." The writer of the article, Peter Hoskin, doesn't question this, or bring up the embarrassing statistics.

Another of the government's big ideas is that groups of workers in the public sector should turn themselves into "mutual pathfinders", becoming independent co-operatives. Just once, in the election campaign, a spokesman let slip the real agenda - that these mutuals would then be able to bid for contracts. There's nothing of that in the piece on the Thirdsector website. We are not to suspect that this is a prelude to privatisation, when the mutuals will be outbid by the private companies. But there's a small clue in the fact that A4e is one of the organisations which will provide mentors for these new mutuals.