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.