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."