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.