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.

A genius for publicity

I missed it; Emma Harrison was on Radio 5 Live this morning. "This week, David Cameron's said he's going to fastrack the scheme to help 120,000 'broken families'. Double Take speaks to Emma Harrison who runs the project." And it's not available on iplayer. But the publicity machine rolls on. According to a papers review on BBC News 24, Harrison is proposing that government ministers each take on the mentoring of a "troubled family". I can't find the newspaper article, but the female journalist who brought it up (I didn't catch her name) described Harrison as "inspirational". She certainly has a genius for keeping her name in the public eye - and for making contacts with government. And no one says, "Hang on a minute. Why have the results been so bad on the contracts you've had?"

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Corrections, Private Eye and complaints

The poor old Guardian got it wrong the other day in describing A4e as a "social enterprise" and the twittersphere was quick to point it out - as was the Social Enterprise Mark company. Today the Guardian has issued a correction: 'A panel that accompanied a report on the England riots, profiling Emma Harrison, chairman of A4E (Action for Employment), incorrectly referred to A4E as a "social enterprise". A4E describes itself as a "social purpose" company. The Social Enterprise Mark company asks us to make clear that the government defines social enterprises as "businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community."'

Private Eye has another go at A4e in its latest edition. It's good to see the Eye catching up with this blog in looking at its Ofsted results and pointing out that it has never got a rating better than "satisfactory". They also look at the unsatisfactory results of "Train to Gain", another of A4e's contracts, and at the Pathways results - also described as unsatisfactory. Why then, asks the Eye, "does the government put so much faith in busted benefit-busters like A4e?" Good question. But we've pointed out before that the procurement process forbids taking into account previous performance. That would, anyway, exclude nearly all the contractors. And for the Work Programme only the biggest companies could bid; that was part of the design of the contracts.

I came across a post on the Consumer Action Group website in which a client currently with A4e complains long and loud about the "adviser" who drew up her CV (I just assume the poster is female, with no evidence!). She describes it as "illiterate and untruthful". The poster is clearly educated and articulate, so why would the "adviser" insist on writing the CV of a client who was better able to do it than him? A comment under the piece says that at Working Links the adviser let the client write her own CV but told her not to use the word "I". This seems to be the fashion now, at least according to these providers, and I don't know why. Your CV is your description of yourself; write it in the first person. That's how I wrote mine and it got me several jobs. However, this problem of advisers with much worse language skills than their clients has always been there, and it's becoming more acute as more people are being forced out of professional jobs. Expect more howls of anger.

More income, and shifting the focus

The government's faith in private profit for curing society's ills is limitless, so there's more money for A4e and the others. We were told yesterday that from next March everybody coming out of prison will be met "at the prison gates" by Work Programme providers who will subject them to “ a tough process so that they find work and they stay on the straight and narrow” (reports Total Politics) This is daft on at least two counts. They certainly won't be met at the prison gates. The provider will probably arrange an interview in the jail before the offender's release. And note the assumption that putting them on the WP guarantees them a job. Most of the providers are operating a triage system; some clients need virtually no help to get a job; some need quite a bit of input and support; and a third group are pretty hopeless. Which category will the ex-cons be put into?

But that's not the only new source of income for A4e. Quietly, something called the New Enterprise Allowance has been rolled out whereby the unemployed can be financed to start up their own businesses. In 36 districts various organisations will be paid to run this scheme. A4e has secured the contracts for 5 of them. This fits well with Mark Lovell's recent stress on self-employment as the solution to lack of jobs.

Maybe it's been decided that it's time to take the spotlight off Emma Harrison and show that the company is not a one-woman band. The Yorkshire Post has published an interview with Mark Lovell. He talks about the history of the company and his part in it. No doubt the interviewer, Lizzie Murphy, thought she was being hard-hitting in raising "issues" like the fraud investigation and the lost laptop. She fails, however, to raise the real issue, the consistent failure to meet targets.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

David Cameron's solution - Emma Harrison

Can Emma Harrison cure our society's ills? Of course not. It's arguable that A4e is a symptom rather than the cure. But she has obviously made a great impression on David Cameron; we had the astonishing spectacle yesterday of the Prime Minister citing Harrison's "family champions" scheme as the answer to the problems thrown up by the riots.

The press this morning shows its usual lack of understanding and research (with the honourable exception of the Guardian). The Mail says: "Aides said Mr Cameron would order ministers to help his family champion, social entrepreneur Emma Harrison, who was appointed last year. Her plans will see police, social workers and jobcentres work together." Somewhat inaccurate.

The Telegraph simply reports what Cameron said without comment.

Only the Guardian is sceptical, with three articles. The first draws attention to the fact that funding for various family intervention projects has been cut. This is interesting because most of us were not aware that such projects existed; Harrison gave the impression that she had invented the concept (and Cameron appeared to believe her). The authors understand the current situation: " While the government said it would make available £200m from the European Social Fund to help fund the target, the rest would come from the early intervention grant, which is to be cut by 11% by next year and has funding for Sure Start, teenage pregnancy and youth centres to meet. Labour said Sure Start had been cut by 20%. A government source acknowledged that using these resources to fund Cameron's target could vary. They said: "It is for local authorities and their partners, including the voluntary sector, to decide how much they wish to prioritise on families with multiple problems in their area." It's a pity that they don't pick up on the fact that this ESF money is going to private companies bidding for contracts.
The second piece (by different writers) looks at the history of family intervention projects and talks to Trevor Moores, the recently retired head of child services in Westminster council (one of Harrison's pilot areas). He said that the problems were more complex than Cameron and Harrison make out. The piece then quotes Rhian Beynon of the charity Family Action who, as we have noted before, is highly sceptical of Harriosn's simplistic approach, and Katherine Rake, chief executive of the Family & Parenting Institute, who is similarly sceptical. Finally there's a brief cut-and-paste piece about Emma Harrison and the beginnings of her Working Families Everywhere programme. It says, "She will be paid by results and so aims to save the government money." This is confusing, but it highlights the confusion in Cameron's thinking. Harrison's scheme, and the ESF contracts she no doubt hopes to get, are about getting people into work, and this is the only criterion on which you could have "payment by results". As we noted yesterday, Cameron seems to equate "unemployed" with "anti-social".

Nobody has asked why WFE should be suucessful when A4e and other companies have already been paid many millions of pounds to get these people into work and failed.

It's all great publicity for Emma Harrison and A4e. But it will put them under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Monday, 15 August 2011

This time it's really A4e and the riots

A report in the Telegraph - "UK and London riots: David Cameron vows to 'turn around' 125,000 troubled families by 2015". Yes, Cameron's response to the riots is a promise "to put 'rocket boosters' on a programme being developed by Emma Harrison, founder of the work programme contractor A4e, to tackle anti-social families." Brilliant. We thought that Harrison's scheme was about workless families, so presumably "workless" equals "anti-social". And we thought that the funding for this was coming from the European Social Fund and private companies have had to bid for the contracts. Perhaps Cameron doesn't know that. Or perhaps he means to put A4e in charge of another scheme on top of that. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A4e and the riots (well, sort of)

It's quiet in August; there are very few official meetings because all those who can afford to have gone on holiday. So there's nothing much to report, except to highlight this piece from the Islington Tribune. "A unique community marshalling scheme at Finsbury Park could become a blueprint for trouble-spots in the capital which are vulnerable to riots, it emerged this week." 20 guys patrol the area around Finsbury Park station in an initiative "jointly organised by Finsbury Park Business Forum and employment agency A4e." This scheme was publicised last year on the finsburyparkpeople website where we were told that "The new scheme will help not only travellers at the station, but also the unemployed men and women who will take on the marshalling jobs. Their wages will be paid by the Job Centre and employment service A4e." Something a bit odd there, perhaps? The writer doesn't understand work placements? The piece was later updated with a comment from the Chairman of the Business Forum: "The purpose ........ is for the unemployed to gain experience, skills and training in-order to enhance their employability. Our aim is to foster an environment that encourages mutual respect, self-development, and partnership, sense of self-worth, training and thereafter, employment for our Marshals." All very nice. But I wonder how many people realise that these marshals are not getting a wage. And I wonder how many of them feel deeply patronised by the implication that because they're unemployed they need to develop all those qualities, not having them already.

Some people deeply hate the Work Programme, just as they hated the various schemes which preceded it, whoever the providers are. I understand that. But there are some people who continue to claim that it's illegal, and will go on doing so whatever the government says. Some maintain that you can refuse to engage with the WP provided you write saying you believe i'ts illegal or something (whilst publishing disclaimers about encouraging people to do so.) Has anyone actually tested this yet? I've seen no evidence. And I would be very surprised. If you want to make a principled stand, do it in the knowledge that you're going to lose your benefits.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Explaining WFE

Getting hard information about Emma Harrison's project Working Families Everywhere has been difficult. Our correspondent in Hull, one of the pilot areas, put in a Freedom of Information request to the Council but got a very uninformative reply. To a question about how participating families were selected, the reply was that it was "through a structured process of referral". According to a blog by Anna Gaunt (who is accompanying Ms Harrison) they were "meeting with families who had expressed an interest in having support on the road to employment." There's a strong clue, however, as to what's going on in a piece on the Working Families Everywhere website. It's in the form of a Q & A with John Bell, Policy Editor of ESF Works. What's that? It "exists to share the stories of the people, practice and policy that the European Social Fund in England supports." And its website has an interesting piece about the roll-out of Community Budgets. It explains that there have been 16 pilot schemes "tackling social problems around families with complex needs" and that there are 4 new pilots to develop this. "In response to this, the DWP invited companies on the Employment Related Support Services Framework to tender for ESF funding to work with families with multiple problems, helping them overcome these and break the cycle of intergenerational worklessness." It goes on: "Payment will be made mainly by results, on progress measures and job outcomes which move family members nearer to and into work and put families on the road to recovery. Bids must be made by 30th August, and a key element in their evaluation will be how well bidders have integrated partnership working with local authorities into their proposals." So that explains everything. Another big contract in the offing.
In the WFE piece Harrison again talks about "hidden jobs". The phrase was also used by a person from Working Links in a news item on BBC radio recently, talking about the Work Programme in Glasgow. It appears to mean that the providers forge relationships with employers and persuade them to take people on.
You'll be pleased to know that Emma Harrison is writing her autobiography.

Monday, 1 August 2011

What went wrong with FND

An interesting evaluation of Flexible New Deal has been published by the Policy Studies Institute. (The link to the full report doesn't work.) It doesn't name providers, which is a shame. However, some of its findings are:
  • For the 18-24 year old group, it was less effective than New Deal.
  • It often didn't live up to the expectation that support would be individually tailored and personalised.
  • There was little innovation in the design of the service provided and "greater flexibility also appeared to have led to differences in the amount of support received (eg, variation in access to training and in-work support, and different rules on the payment of travel expenses)."
  • Some providers didn't meet the requirement that they should see clients once a fortnight and couldn't find "work-related activity" for all clients.
  • Finally, "The qualitative research identified several issues with regards to the effects and administration of sanctions, including poor timing and inconsistency of messages between Jobcentre Plus and providers, and staff believing long-term claimants were less likely to change their behaviour when faced with the prospect of losing money." I'd have to read the full report to be sure what that means, especially that last bit.
What's worrying is that the Work Programme is similar to FND in many respects.