Monday, 31 December 2012

Keeping up the attack

For the government, the holiday period is clearly a time to carry on the assault on benefits claimants.  David Cameron started it in his New Year message, covered in the Telegraph, which headlines it "We'll help the strivers, not welfare claimants".  Well, that's everyone who is elderly or disabled branded, as well as those trying to find work.  There's an extraordinary passage which shows just how clueless he is about the reality of unemployment:  “When people say we've got to stop our welfare reforms because somehow it is cruel to expect people to work, we are saying no. Getting people into good jobs is absolutely vital, not just for them, but for all of us."  Sorry?  Did someone say it was cruel to expect people to work?  What are you talking about?  The article points out that the message echoes that put out recently by Tories in marginal constituencies "demanding whether the Government should offer more help to 'hard working families' or 'people who don’t work'. The advertisements have been criticised by Labour as taking the Conservatives back to being the 'nasty party'."  Yes, and I would think they've alienated all the pensioners and disabled, too.
Iain Duncan Smith has been busy too.  Since it was pointed out that around 60% of those claiming benefits are actually working, he has turned his wrath on the tax credits system.  Several papers cover his attack, but the best version, perhaps, is in the Independent.  Now, I have to say that I was never entirely happy with the tax credits system.  It seemed to be subsidising bad employers.  And it goes too far up the income scale.  I knew a man with a young family who was on a good salary (I knew exactly what it was since it was partly my responsibility to pay it) who was eligible for the credits, while a single person under 50 wasn't.  I also knew someone who was offered a job with variable hours who panicked at the thought that he would face the money being clawed back.  But I wasn't aware that "after 2008 HMRC did not attempt to reclaim overpayments of less than £25,000. That is set to be reduced to £5,000 under the coalition, alongside moves to require proof of payments from those claiming for childcare or that children aged between 16 and 19 are in full-time education."  Reform is obviously necessary.
But, as usual, IDS goes over the top.  The Factcheck blog has shown that his figures are either wrong or just made up.  It seems that he will claim anything to justify his hostility to people on benefits.
Happy New Year, folks.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Writing - or respect?

Those who don't read the Observer should read this article.
Now, I start out by loathing the very notion of the "nudge unit" as a sinister way of manipulating people's thinking to suit the government.  However, the exercise described here appears to be based on sensible psychological insights (otherwise known as common sense) and designed to help and support rather than manipulate.  Notice that the trial was with people who hadn't been out of work very long, and that the emphasis in the article is on getting people to write down their commitments and express themselves about a traumatic event.  But the real benefits (which the comments under the article pick up) are summed up as, "The unit made three changes to the way jobseekers in Loughton were treated: the amount of paperwork was reduced at the first meeting so that the claimant could talk about getting back to work from day one; the conversation was focused on what jobseekers would do for the next fortnight and they were encouraged to make written commitments; and advisers at the centre were told to build the confidence and wellbeing of those still claiming after eight weeks, rather than treating them as failures."  (My italics)
I can remember a time when schemes like New Deal were promoted as being about helping to build people's confidence.  The Work Programme put paid to any such soft-headed notions.  Mark Hoban thinks the trial describes an "innovative approach".  No, Mr Hoban, it's a very old-fashioned approach which your department seems to have forgotten.

Mystery unemployment figures

There's a bit of a mystery surrounding the fall in the unemployment figures.  The economy is flat-lining; so why is the number of jobless predicted to continue to fall.  Several papers have addressed this.  The Independent points to the "flexible" labour market but says, "Privately ...... some ministers wonder whether there is another reason: that more people are working in the black economy because it has become harder to draw state benefits without being “hassled” by Jobcentres and having to make more effort to find work."  And, "One Whitehall estimate is that one in three people who stop claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) switches to working in the “informal economy”.
There are some startling figures about MWA.  "... almost two thirds of claimants placed on mandatory work activity (MWA) do not start it because they find a job, stop claiming benefits or simply do not turn up. Of the 90,000 people referred to the scheme, only 33,000 started. More than 6,200 have lost their benefits for not taking part."
The website Totaljobs has a different slant on this, according to the Express.  The number of applicants for every job vacancy is growing.  "The reality is that a great deal of the jobs created have been part-time and low paid, and many of those that have been taken off the unemployment roll have in fact just gone into government training schemes rather than paid work."
So what is going on?  Is the black economy growing?  Or are there more people simply disappearing from the figures because they are being shuffled onto different programmes or "sanctioned"?

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A4e's year

2012 has been an eventful year for A4e.
There have been changes at boardroom level.  Roy Newey went early in the year; he was the director who travelled round the world selling the company's services.  He remains an advisor to the group board, and a small shareholder in the company.  Also gone is Jo Blundell, the director who was, briefly, the face of A4e for Flexible New Deal.  She has formed something called "futurepublic" (capital letters for proper nouns are unfashionable), advising outsourcing companies.  Matt Stevens came in as Chief Financial Officer.  David Blunkett MP ceased to be an advisor at the end of October.  The biggest change, of course, was the departure of Emma Harrison as Chair of the company.  She still owns 85.1% of the shares, but her role on the Board has been filled by Sir Robin Young as Non Executive Chairman.  Mark Lovell is Executive Chairman (and owns 6.5% of the shares) and Andrew Dutton is CEO.  Jonty Olliff-Cooper is Director of Policy and Strategy but not a board member.
The year seemed to start well, with Harrison riding high as the government's "families champion", rolling out her scheme to pilot local authorities and put forward by Cameron as the solution to all our social problems.  That all came crashing down with the revelation that she had received £8.6m in dividends in the previous year.  When the Daily Mail in particular got its teeth into that, tearing into her for days on end, she was forced to stand down from her government role and from the Chairmanship of A4e.  Drawn into all this terrible publicity were the allegations of fraudulent activity along with persistent failure to meet targets.  A4e's reputation could hardly get any worse.  Expensive PR consultants were brought in to repair the damage.
It didn't help when A4e was told by the Advertising Standards Authority that it could not describe itself as a "social purpose company" since this could mislead people into thinking that it was not a profit-making business.  The response was somewhat petulant.
The focus for the media was always on the Work Programme and its predecessors.  A leak of A4e's performance data to Channel 4 News showed that, after about 8 months, the results were terrible.  Another leak of the full first year figures confirmed the worst, but the leak was also the occasion of Emma Harrison's re-emergence for what was to prove a disastrous interview, for her and for the company.  It was a set-back for the rehabilitation process.
What about business?  It has been a lean year for new contracts.  The OLASS prison contract was delayed by concerns over A4e's record but started in November.  And that's it.  International business seems to have shrunk.  There was a point when A4e bragged about operating in 11 countries.  Now it's 5, not counting the UK, and of those one, Spain, hasn't actually yielded any contracts yet.  We will have to wait a long time to see how all this has impacted on profits.  The Work Programme hasn't contributed anything to profits in its first 14 months, but doesn't appear to have caused losses.
Perhaps it's a sign of wanting to create a new image, but A4e has a new website.  It's a lot cleaner and less fussy than the old one.  The slogan - "Improving people's lives" - is still there, but less stridently.  All those blogs are gone, and the grammar is a lot better.  Maybe it's an indication that A4e will become just another outsourcing company in 2013.  Personally, I'd like to see the whole business of outsourcing shrink drastically.
My thanks to all those who have followed this blog in 2012 and contributed to the debate.  I wish everyone, whatever their circumstances, a good Christmas.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Universal Jobmatch to be compulsory

You weren't paranoid, you were right.  It's just been announced that registration with the Universal Jobmatch site is to be compulsory for those on JSA, so that activity can be monitored.  In a very brief piece on Radio 4's The World at One, it was announced that it will be "mandatory" soon, and those who refuse to register or then don't do what their advisers tell them can be punished.  Iain Duncan Smith says it will enable advisers to ensure that claimants are applying for the right jobs.  There was a brief mention by the reporter of the recent problems with fake vacancies on the site, but not of the possibilities of harvesting people's personal data.
There was also mention of the proposal to pay benefits via a card with restrictions on it.  IDS said that they have been looking for some time at whether it would be feasible.  There are no plans at the moment, but they are thinking about it for such groups as drug addicts.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse .....

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Merry Christmas, Mr Shelbrooke

With the season of good cheer almost upon us, there's a wonderful example of exactly the opposite in a story which has just popped up on the news feeds from the Express.  The MP Alec Shelbrooke (Tory, Elmet and Rothwell) tells us that "Benefits claimants should be banned from spending their state handouts on cigarettes and booze".  Later in the piece he says, "Introducing a welfare cash card on which benefits will be paid, claimants will only be able to make priority payments such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing. The purchase of luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky television and gambling will be prohibited."

It's not new but it's exceptionally stupid.  And note something else important - the Express's determination to talk about "state handouts" rather than benefits.  It's all part of the ugly propaganda campaign jointly being waged by the far-right media and their MP chums.  All the buzz words are there: "something for nothing culture", "striving low-paid workers", "idleness of the shirkers", "hard-working families".  It's so tedious and so offensive.

If you want to let Mr Shelbrooke know your opinion, he has his own website.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Punishing your customers

That sounds ridiculous - you don't punish your customers.  It would make more sense, of course, if we didn't use the totally inappropriate word "customers" when talking about the Work Programme.  A4e uses it, and I'm not sure how many other providers do, but it's one of those weasel words, distorting the language.  A customer is someone who buys goods or services.  That means that the customer of A4e is the DWP which commissioned their services, or the taxpayer who foots the bill - not the person who is required to turn up.  So I prefer the word "clients".
Okay, why would you punish your clients?  That seems to be what A4e and the rest are doing, as more and more people are "sanctioned".  Let's dispose of the myth, perpetuated by Jonty Olliff-Cooper, that it's not A4e which sanctions people, it's the DWP.  As someone pointed out, that's like saying that it's not the traffic warden who gives you a parking ticket, it's the local council.  And now that punishment means at least 3 months of destitution, the situation is really serious.  
If it's a case of people refusing to engage with the WP, or any other programme, altogether, then they know what the penalty is.  But I'm hearing more and more stories of punishment for supposed failures to comply which are very worrying.
I'm not naive.  I know that there are two sides to every such story, and I don't automatically believe what I'm told.  How could I?  But much of it rings true.  For instance, we learned recently that one in five of all the homeless people referred to the WP has been sanctioned.  It's not difficult to see how that could come about.  Homeless people can't lead organised lives, and they can't rely on getting any post.  But what about all the stories of people being punished for missing appointments they weren't aware of, or being told that an appointment was being changed and then being punished for not attending on the original date?  Such incidents have been described in comments on here, and in others which I haven't published.
There seems to be something terribly wrong with the systems, and I don't know whether they are peculiar to A4e.  Perhaps an employee could tell me whether I've got this right.  When a client is perceived to have done something wrong, like missed an appointment, a click of the mouse "raises a sanction doubt".  This may be accompanied by an explanation, but the "doubt" stands.  The system then sends all these to a central point, which forwards them, often minus the explanation, to the DWP.  The client is then notified by the DWP that he's being punished.  Thus, someone who has been told that he needn't attend an appointment because he'll be away on a training course gets his income stopped.  The articulate and persistent client can sometimes fight these sanctions, but the misery they are causing is immense.  The system should be changed.
There's another worrying trend.  Hostility between client and adviser is nothing new, and is inevitable sometimes.  But more people are reporting encounters which go against the DWP's own guidance on the behaviour of the professionals.  I recall the middle-aged chap who said he came back from his first appointment almost in tears at the bullying nature of the meeting.  A woman talks about her husband being spoken to as if he were a naughty child.  And I recently had a horrifying comment which I couldn't publish because it identified the people concerned (please, please will the author of that get back to me) describing how an ex-soldier has been punished for not showing due respect to his "adviser".  Respect, certainly in this case, doesn't seem to work both ways.
Most clients, I know, have good, friendly relationships with the staff employed to work with them.  There will always be a small minority who really shouldn't be in the job, or whose training has been inadequate.  But now, with pressures on staff ever greater and punishments so severe, the situation does seem to be getting worse.  And that's dangerous.
The question remains: why would you punish your clients?  Every client represents an opportunity to make a profit, and the DWP's answer to failing providers is to take away the clients.  I asked the same question back in June when it was reported that in the first 8 months of the programme A4e had requested 10,120 punishments, only 3,000 of which had been accepted by the DWP.  Don't those figures show what's wrong?  At the time Corporate Watch said, "By the time it's finished, more people will have been sanctioned by the Work Programme than properly employed through it."  How true.  And why?  The answer must be that every punishment is seen as a warning to others.
Please note that I can't deal with "not for publication" comments by giving individual advice or answering questions.  If you have a query or want to say something, please frame it in such a way that I and the regulars can respond on the blog.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Two stories

A couple of news stories:

We learned yesterday that most bus companies, including the big ones, have agreed to provide free bus travel for unemployed people who can produce a Jobcentre Plus travel card.  But, as the Independent points out, it's for one month only - January.  It's unlikely to help you get a job, but enjoy it.

Then there's the story in the Guardian about the mess which the Universal Jobmatch site has become.  "The Universal Jobmatch site, which has so far cost taxpayers more than £17m, has advertised fake jobs including for an MI6 "target elimination specialist" and "international couriers" for CosaNostra Holdings, as well as listing pornographic websites. There are fears that jobseekers could become victims of identity theft. On Tuesday, the Department of Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith admitted 6,000 jobs had been blocked since the site launched on 19 November and scores of employer accounts had been blocked."  And we learn that "Monster, the company that operates the site, had been previously caught out by Ukraine-based hackers in 2007 when the confidential details of more than 1.3 million people were stolen."  You couldn't make it up.  And it's apparently putting off genuine employers.  But still people are being told, wrongly, that they have to register with the site.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Targets and definitions

In an outsourced society, targets are, apparently, vital.  You can't measure the success or failure of a contract without them.  When companies bid, they have to agree to meet targets.  But as we've seen so often, not meeting them doesn't matter much.  There's no penalty.  You just don't make as much profit.  But if that's already factored into your calculations, who cares?  All the Work Programme primes missed the first year target, which was pitifully low anyway.  Even delaying publication of the data for a couple of months didn't push the figures up enough.  So what happens now?  A stern letter from Mark Hoban.  Well, what else can he do?  If they've all performed equally badly, or if the differences between them are minimal, you can't penalise one and not the others.  And anyway, the only suggested penalty is to cut down the number of referrals to the worst performing companies.  For some, that would be welcome, since they can't cope with the numbers they've got.
There are other targets, unofficial ones, which do have an impact, but on clients rather than the companies.  Think of Atos.  Both the DWP and Atos have denied that there are any targets for getting people off incapacity benefits.  But whistle-blowers among Atos staff have said that they are indeed given targets and are pressured to meet them.  And now we have the Universal Jobmatch site.  Again, the official line, in all the guidance, is that it's not compulsory for people on JSA to register with it.  But we know that people are being told, by both JC and Work Programme advisers, that it is compulsory, because they have been given targets, and it's easier to give orders than to persuade.

Two other words have become part of the language of welfare-to-work, and in the process have been neutralised.  The first is "mandatory".  We all know what it means in practice.  But it somehow sounds better than its dictionary definition (a real, physical dictionary, my copy of the Concise Oxford, 8th edition) which is simply "compulsory".  So let's not talk about people being "mandated".  They are compelled.
Even more weasly is the word "sanction".  It's an interesting word, because it can mean two very different, almost opposite, things.  One meaning is approval.  The other is penalty.  And it's the second meaning, of course, which pertains here.  When people don't do what they are compelled to do they are penalised - punished.

So if you're an outsourcing company which has failed to meet its targets, you can't be penalised.  But if you're a client, you can be told that something is compulsory when it isn't and penalised for not doing it.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Turning the tide?

Thanks to a correspondent for drawing my attention to this item on Channel 4 News tonight; I missed it.  It vindicates what many people have been saying, on this blog and elsewhere.  The Universal Jobmatch website is vulnerable to hackers stealing your personal data, simply because no one is checking whether the vacancies advertised are genuine.  And people are being told, by Jobcentre and Work Programme staff, that they were obliged to sign up when they're not.  A good bit of work by a group of "hackers" - though they didn't have to actually hack the site to expose its failures, just register as employers using clearly false details.

You will not have noticed any references to the Work Programme in all the discussion of the Chancellor's financial plans this week.  I wonder why that is.  But when you got over the blow about benefits effectively being cut, you may have noticed something of a backlash in the media.  Osborne began his attack with the usual reference to hard-working people going off to work in the morning while their neighbours, "living a life on benefits", slept in.  But the opposition and commentators were quick to point out that 60% of working age benefits go to people who are in work.  Not that that bothered Osborne, who talked about "fairness".  And it didn't bother the Express, which talked about "Britain's benefits free-for-all" and "state handouts", deliberately ignoring the truth (so what else is new?).  Now the Guardian has reported that Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, didn't like Osborne's rhetoric much.  "Cable ....  distanced himself from the way in which the chancellor had sold his squeeze on welfare benefits in his autumn statement, saying he identified with those claimants who resented being regarded as a scrounger. 'I think that kind of approach and language is completely wrong.  I made it fairly clear that that stuff about people being unemployed at home with the curtains drawn is not the way, certainly, I would have addressed it. I think most people out there are looking for work, most people in this country are very conscientious, and we should do what we can to support them.'"  Good.  It needs more people to say that.  The government is playing a game with the Labour party by introducing legislation on this below-inflation rise in benefits, daring them to oppose it.  Maybe they'll have the courage to do so.

The Huffington Post has published an interesting article headed "Work Programme increases hardship and makes little difference to compliance".  At last, some common sense.

So are we beginning to see just a glimmer of the turning of the tide?  Maybe not.  But we live in hope.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

£1.375m for Emma

It's a story in today's Observer, but it's an irritating one.
The figures come from her husband, who said she got a total dividend of £1.25m in the year from April 2011, plus £250,000 from January this year.  Okay, she didn't step down as Chair of A4e until March, so this is hardly a surprise.  Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, is outraged, justifiably.  But the paper seems to forget that a big slice of A4's income doesn't come from welfare-to-work.  There are plenty of other lucrative contracts.
And there's a worrying inaccuracy in the story.  "She became a high-profile figure through reality TV programmes such as The Fairy Jobmother."  Er ... no.  She wasn't in that.  It was Hayley Taylor, who got her big break as an A4e employee in Benefit Busters.
I've no objection, of course, to the Observer / Guardian keeping this in the public eye.  But let's get it right.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A frightening future

I'm scared of what's being done to the poor in this country.  I don't have to worry about the welfare system for myself, not at the moment.  But the damage that's being done to society, and the potential implications down the road, are truly frightening.  Let's just see how all the government's actions add up.

  1. The Work Programme was meant to start to get the long-term unemployed back into work, and leave them with no excuse for not having a job.  It was largely hot air, of course, but Iain Duncan Smith seemed to have convinced himself that it was real.  He is unable to abandon that now.
  2. In the absence of actual jobs, there is a sharp increase in the amount of "mandatory work activity", whether as part of the WP or as a separate programme.  Some of this is time-limited, some is indefinite in length.  From Monday this is to extend to those who are still officially sick or disabled (see an excellent Guardian article).  The DWP refuses to disclose the identity of employers profiting from this scheme, despite a ruling that they should.  They have admitted that private companies are involved, but insist that the work has to be "of community benefit".  The DWP's own figures show that this activity has no impact on whether someone can get a real job, so the whole thing has to be seen as deliberately punitive, or pandering to Daily Mail readers.  Common sense says that this is preventing the creation of real jobs.  If companies can get free labour, there is no need to hire anyone.
  3. In the ideological fantasies of the right, there is no contradiction between the failure of the Work Programme and belief that people dependent on benefits are too comfortable, and need to be made to suffer in order to find work.  According to IDS, the system is "stifling incentive, opportunity and responsibility".  (The Telegraph yesterday.)  It should not "pay for a life on benefits when work is available".  Last Tuesday's release of performance data didn't actually happen, you dreamt it.
  4. So their benefits are to frozen.  So far we don't know whether that includes housing benefit.  If it does, there will be a rapid increase in homelessness.  Even if it doesn't, the impact of an ever-declining standard of living will have the same effect eventually.
  5. If all you can get is part-time work, and you are eligible for tax credits, you may well have to get more hours to qualify.  It's going up to 30 hours a week minimum.  So if you can't get more hours, your only recourse is to stop working altogether and depend on benefits entirely.  
  6. The "bedroom tax" isn't a tax at all, but a gratuitously nasty attack on the poorest.  Anyone living in "social housing" (I loathe that term) and claiming benefits shouldn't have a spare bedroom.  So you'll have to move.  If you're unlucky enough to live in one of those areas where there is a severe shortage of, say, single-bedroom flats owned by councils or housing associations, then you're going to have to move right out of the area, or move into private rented accommodation - which will cost more, so the cost to the taxpayer goes up.  Wonderful.
Don't look to Labour to change things.  

Some people talk in apocalyptic terms about "work camps" or "back to the workhouse".  Others foresee civil unrest - rioting, in effect - on a big scale.  I don't know.  But I'm scared.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

What next?

The dust has settled on the Work Programme publicity.  Amazingly, the spin failed and the right information got the headlines.  The government had delayed as long as it dared so that it could put out 14 months of figures rather than 12.  The 12-month outcome figure was around 2%.  But even the 14-month figure came out well below the dead-weight figure.  Who would have guessed that the media would actually be talking about the dead-weight figure?
But this blog is supposed to be about A4e.  So what has all this meant for them?  Their results were not outstandingly bad or good, so they weren't singled out.  Channel 4 News were able to resurrect that Emma Harrison interview to show how wrong she was.  And A4e could really have done without that.  After the crisis of February, when she had to step down from her government post and from the chairmanship of A4e, George Bridges of Quiller Consultants was called in to use his connections to get the company through the mess.  Harrison's appearance will surely have set back those efforts.  But more important in the long run is that the company itself cannot hide behind platitudes.  The failure of the Work Programme puts it under scrutiny.  Andrew Dutton writes: ".... our current performance is materially better than the first year data shows".  Like all the other providers, the claim is that more outcomes are in the pipeline and will show up in the next release of data.  But that was always going to be the case.  He adds that "A4e has invested £50m in the past 18 months into our services, people and offices."  This is what Harrison said was her own money.  However, other providers claim to have broken even in the first year of the WP, so we can assume that that investment has been recouped.  They have a curious set of graphics on their website.  The figures include a claim that they saved the taxpayer £24m in benefits paid to people who now have jobs.  They do not indicate whether this figure takes account of in-work benefits which people still have to claim.  And does it take into account the amount the government has paid A4e?  Anyway, figures like these mean little; it's the experience people have of the company, and its performance in doing the work it's contracted to do which count.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

How A4e did

Those good folks at the Guardian have published the WP performance data by provider.
A4e have 5 areas.  Their best performance was in South Yorkshire, with 3.55%.  Their worst was in the Thames Valley, with 2.78%.  The average for all 5 areas is 3.28%.  A4e isn't the worst but it's far from the best.
Krishnan Guru-Murty has tweeted: "A4e founder Emma Harrison not available to explain why her claim #c4news figures were wrong turned out to be, er, wrong."

The Work Programme - what we now know

Two quotes from that grisly Emma Harrison interview on Channel 4 News:
1.  (about the leaked A4e figures) "They're wrong."
They were right.
2.  "The Work Programme is the most successful programme we've ever run."
It isn't. 
The one thing that's missing from the data released so far is the comparative figures for the providers, at least in a form that means something.  So we don't yet know how A4e compares with the others.
Everything else is out there.  The dead weight figure for the first year was 5%, the number expected to get jobs without the WP or any other intervention.  So the target of 5.5% was very low.  The actual figure achieved is 3.5%.  There were 200,000 breaks in claiming, which the ERSA (the providers' trade body) wants to spin as 200k jobs.  Mark Hoban on the Daily Politics claimed that one in four have found work.  Iain Duncan Smith says that more than 50% have come off benefits.  Yeah, right.
The best summary, surprisingly, comes from the Daily Mail.  What a pity they spoil it by referring to people "returning to claim handouts".  Hoban intends to write to the worst-performing providers telling them to produce an action plan.  A far cry from the original promise to "sack" them.
There's a fair bit more talk to come today, much of it trying to prove that black is white.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The press we deserve?

It's the middle of the night and I can't sleep, so I'm checking the news feeds ahead of the release of the performance data at 9.30 am.  There's plenty of interpretation already.  But the prize must go to the Express: "Jobs scheme 'helps 20,000 a month'".  Yes, they've taken the ERSA's spin and published it as the facts, ignoring deliberately the reality that this is people who've found any sort of work, temporary, part-time, which got them off the books for a little while.  "Almost a third of those who started the Work Programme in June 2011 have been supported into a job so far, said the ERSA. More than 64,000 people found work under the programme in the three months to September, it was reported."  (The words "helps" and "supported" will startle many people who know that the providers had nothing to do with it.)  But this is what Mark Hoban and the government wanted, of course.  Don't bother with the facts - that the figures for sustained jobs are appalling - just spin dizzily so that Express readers get the propaganda.
The Independent goes with "Government's Work Programme only helps one person in three find a job".  They do report the ERSA's figures, but understand the spin.
The Guardian has published the full data which the private companies have put out and asked readers if they can do anything with it.  Good for them.
The Financial Times yesterday had access to the actual figures and reported that the best-performing company, Serco, earned nearly double what the worst-performing, Prospects, earned.
So as as we await the actual figures (and I hope I can get some sleep in before then) we can already see what the press are going to make of it.  Accurate reporting?  Some papers don't know what that means.

Don't expect much

The release of the Work Programme performance figures tomorrow will probably be something of an anticlimax.  We know what they amount to - performance targets, which were very low anyway, have been missed.  But there won't be any fuss.  The media are obsessed with Leveson, whose report is due out on Thursday, and this is just not interesting.  We can expect something in the Guardian, and probably in the Independent and on Channel 4 News.  But the excuses are already in, and who cares anyway?
Just in case, Mark Hoban has already written to coalition MPs telling them how to respond.  The New Statesman has the letter, and it's pathetic.  It's too early for the results to mean much, he says.  And in case anyone is looking too closely at the figures he's going to do a "data dump", throwing out there figures for previous programmes and various "ad hoc statistics".  This might serve to confuse the issue.  The letter concludes: “The Work Programme is designed to be a major improvement to welfare to work support, my goal is to drive forward its effective implementation. I hope you will join me in supporting the programme on the day.”
The Express, with its usual inability to join the dots, has a story today about a report from the Joseph Rowntree Trust describing the millions of workers living in poverty.  Job insecurity, short-term work, part-time working, all contribute to this.  The Independent goes for a report by three homelessness charities about what damage the Work Programme has done to the homeless.  One in five homeless people on the WP have been sanctioned, i.e. made even more destitute than they already are.  Yet 60% of the homeless had not even been asked about the problems they faced.  Charities continue to do for nothing what the WP providers are supposed to be doing for payment.
Yet we're being told that the failure of the WP is due to the double-dip recession.  The Indus Delta site covers a report by Inclusion on the effects of the government getting its forecasts wrong.  They expected growth of 2% but ended up with minus 0.4%.  That would reduce job outcomes by 15% in the first year of the WP.  So it's not the fault of the providers.  That's all right, then.
The main reason for disinterest tomorrow, however, will be that there is a narrative about unemployment, encouraged by the media and the government and accepted by the majority of the public, and the WP is a mere detail.  The welfare system is bloated and has to be cut back drastically.  Benefit-dependency has people living comfortable life-styles with no incentive to work.  There is plenty of work out there if people were willing to do it.  The failure of the government's flagship programme to address long-term unemployment is a minor matter.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cynical manipulation

There's something sinister going on.  The DWP has released new figures ahead of the WP performance data - the figures for those who have been "sanctioned" i.e. stripped of benefits.  The papers seem to understand that they're being manipulated but fall for it anyway.  The Mail headlines it "More than 150,000 forced off benefits after refusing to participate in Iain Duncan Smith's back-to-work scheme".  So already they don't grasp what people are being sanctioned for.  Turning up late for an appointment is hardly "refusing to participate".  But they then go on to talk of, "Suspicions that figures will be used to distract from report that fewer than one in 20 on scheme have found a permanent job".  Yes.  Apparently sanctions are running at 15,000 a month.  Do the papers seriously think that these are all people who are "determined to avoid getting a job at all", in the words of Mark Hoban?
The Telegraph has spotted that "More people who take part in a flagship government jobs programme end up being stripped of their benefit payments than finding permanent work, new figures suggest."  This is a much better account of the situation; perhaps Patrick Hennessy, the author, has a better understanding of the subject.  But they still repeat the statement from Hoban: “Through the Work Programme we are offering the hardest-to-help claimants extensive support in order for them to take control of their own lives and return to work. They need to do their bit to find a job but we’ll be there to help them do that.”
The comments under both articles demonstrate both the entrenched attitudes, and the anger which is building up.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Preparing to admit failure

The Work Programme has failed.  We knew that, but Mark Hoban has admitted as much in advance of the performance data being released this coming Tuesday.  He has given an interview to the Telegraph revealing that fewer than 5% of clients have found sustained work, and that the companies have to "get their act together".  The best Hoban can say is, "I think we can see some positive signs."  Doesn't sound good, does it?  And the excuses are a bit lame.  The economic backdrop is different now, so it's harder to get back into work.  And "what work looks like is different as well".  I assume that means that there's more part-time and temporary work.  It's embarrassingly at odds with the spin put on the employment statistics.  There's no apology to the unemployed, of course, those who are the real victims of the failure.
Will Mark Hoban be forced to front the excuses on Tuesday, or will Iain Duncan Smith step up to the plate? And will the media understand the implications and ask the right questions?
An interesting sidelight to the story is the way in which the writer of the article, Robert Winnett, twice refers to A4e's record.

Points of view

There have been some interesting bits and pieces in the media this week which show how the battle to stigmatise those who have to depend on benefits is being won.
The Guardian carried a report on Tuesday of research by a team from the University of Kent.  Not, you notice, a think tank but an academic institution.  It reported that there is "a climate of fear" among people who need to claim benefits which frightens them off.  Government disinformation has meant that 1.8 million people have been "potentially too scared to seek help".  The report lists some of that disinformation (lies, in effect) then examines how the newspapers have systematically branded as scroungers those on benefits.  It's a damning report, but where was the coverage elsewhere?  There wasn't any, because it doesn't fit the agenda of the government and its mouthpieces.  Well done to the Guardian, though.
On Thursday Iain Duncan Smith appeared on BBC's Question Time.  I wasn't able to watch all of this, but I caught the row between him and another panellist, Owen Jones.  Jones tried to talk about the demonisation of the poor, but IDS snapped back at him with a furious face and voice.  And even the usually sensible Deborah Meadon disagreed with Jones.  The truth was outnumbered, as usual.
Plenty of coverage was given this week to Lord Freud, the employment minister in charge of reforming the welfare system.  Radio 4 discussed the "bedroom tax", under which people on benefits and living in social housing (I hate that term) will lose a big chunk of money if they have a spare bedroom.  A reporter went to the North East and discovered that there is a huge shortage of housing which people can down-size into.  So they have to either move far away or go into private rented accommodation which will end up costing much more.  When the reporter put this to Freud he waffled and retreated to the previous question.  Clearly what seems eminently sensible in an office in Whitehall doesn't work in the real world, but nobody wants to know.  Freud again showed the extent of his understanding in an interview in House Magazine, reported in the Guardian.  Apparently people on benefits are too comfortable and have a lifestyle which discourages them from taking risks.  He then made the sort of remark which comes back to haunt you:  "Freud, a former journalist and investment banker, told the magazine that his background did not make him unable to understand the reality of living on benefits. 'You don't have to be the corpse to go to the funeral, which is the implied criticism there,' he said."  The Telegraph also reported the story and the reaction of Liam Byrne for Labour.  The difference in the comments under the two articles speaks volumes about the polarisation of attitudes.
On a lighter note - sort of - was the report of a fake job advert which appeared on the website.  It was for a professional killer for MI6, and was so well put together that it was a while before anyone spotted that it was a fake.  Makes you wonder how many other fake jobs are being advertised.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


If I get it wrong I'll put my hand up and apologise, especially if I'm threatened.  So I've removed the post "Lucky Man", which David Blunkett has complained about on the following grounds:
A) He wasn't Secretary of State in 2006 when the new outsourced New Deal contracts started.  Okay, he had resigned from the Cabinet in 2005.  My mistake.
B) He doesn't work for A4e now.  He's still listed as an advisor on A4e's website but the latest edition of the Register of Members' Interests shows that he ceased to be that on 31 October this year.  Since that register was "as at 5th November", I can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that when I wrote the post.
(I won't publish any comments on this.)

Monday, 19 November 2012

You win some, you lose some

It's more than three years since I first wrote about CLACs - Community Legal Advice Centres.  They were the government's response to the spiralling cost of legal aid.  Get local councils to make contracts with a single deliverer of all advice services, including legal advice, and channel the money exclusively to that deliverer.  It seemed pretty clear that they envisaged that the existing services, such as the CAB, would team up with others to bid for the contracts; and that's what happened in the first CLAC.  But then A4e spotted an opportunity, got together with a Sheffield legal firm and set their bid writers on it.  The result was, inevitably, that A4e got the Leicester CLAC.  The Hull one followed, and only then did alarm bells start ringing.  The government hadn't really intended that the CAB, along with all other advice services like Law Centres, would go out of business because of lack of funding.  When I blogged about this in May 2010 there were five CLACs with five more planned, but A4e still only had the two.  Then, as funding was withdrawn across the piece, the idea of the CLACs quietly died.  The Leicester one is still run by A4e, but in Hull the contract ends in March next year and is not being renewed, because of the loss of the £600k from the LSC which was half its funding.  The CAB is being brought back in.
It doesn't matter much to A4e.  The CLACs have been a stepping stone to other advice service contracts, like the Money Advice Service.
There's an interesting job on offer at A4e's Westminster office - Public Affairs Officer.  It seems to be mainly about political connections.  Any takers?

Friday, 16 November 2012

... and the truth is buried

I pointed out the claim that there were 2,000 vacancies in Hull, an area of high unemployment.  Despite the exposure of this claim as at best highly misleading, it has taken wings.  Today the Express has turned it into "Unemployment 'blackspot' that has 7,000 jobs going begging".  Yes, you read that right, 7,000.  Because, as everyone knows, only about 30% of vacancies are advertised in the Jobcentres.  The story does point out what some of those vacancies actually are; highly specialised and requiring qualifications (and they include Army jobs!).  But that doesn't deter the DWP chap.  "Stuart Griffiths, Hull district manager for the Department for Work and Pensions, said unemployed people had a misconception that there were no jobs on offer.  He said: 'It is a myth that there are no jobs out there.  People sometimes come into our offices and say there are no jobs out there but it is simply not true.  These might not be the jobs of people’s dreams – we accept not everyone wants to be a carer or a butcher, for example. We all want to create and attract new jobs into the city, and we all want the jobs from large companies.  But what we are saying is, if people want to train to work in renewables, for example, why not take a job now and earn money so you can train towards the career you want?'"
Hang on, how many of these jobs are open to trainees with no experience?  And it doesn't deter the odious Taxpayers' Alliance.  "Last night Robert Oxley, campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: 'It is ludicrous that we are paying out so much in jobseekers’ allowance when there are jobs out there waiting to be filled.  The welfare system has long needed reform so that it both equips people for work and ensures they take the jobs on offer.  With money tight we can’t afford for people to remain out of employment. It is vital that the welfare system ensures that work pays and that dodging it does not.'"
That's the agenda, of course.  All those people in Hull, and elsewhere, who are desperate for work have now been branded as workshy, and it feeds the far right's determination to destroy the welfare system.
Strange, but no one has mentioned the Work Programme.  You would think the providers in the area (they don't include A4e) would have a comment to make.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

How the untruths spread

There's a Jobcentre manager in Hull who might be regretting the "facts" he gave to the local paper.  He certainly should be.  The Hull Daily Mail reported today "2,000 jobs on offer in Hull, but no takers, Jobcentre says".  Hull has double the national average of people on JSA, so this would be a big story if true. But the comments in reaction show that it isn't.  Somebody went on the website and found only 250 vacancies within 15 miles of Hull, and most of those were for people with specific qualifications like an HGV licence.  Other people pointed out that many listed vacancies are not jobs at all.  And so on; I don't need to labour the point for many of my readers.  But it's been repeated on the BBC's website as "Concern over Hull's 2,000 unfilled job vacancies", and again on the local news.  I can't imagine that unemployed people in Hull are too thrilled about this.  Is it happening where you are?
This sort of very damaging myth helps the government.  The Guardian reports that Iain Duncan Smith is about to put his proposals for welfare cuts before the government.  They will include "freezing the up-rating of benefits for two years and then linking it to pay as opposed to inflation".  Because, of course, if there are all those workshy people out there they don't deserve any more.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Sense and nonsense

We reported back in April this year that Richmond upon Thames council had put its contract for supporting and training local voluntary organisations out to tender, and the winning bid had come from the Foundation for Social Improvement.  Yes, the FSI, the creation of Emma Harrison, a registered charity with two other A4e directors on its board and based at A4e's Westminster offices.  The leader of the opposition on Richmond council was kicking up a fuss about handing contracts to a "scandal-hit organisation" rather than to the local CVS which had been doing the job satisfactorily.  20 days later we learned from the Guardian that the contract was worth £85,000 and that the council had decided to pull out because of the potential risks.  The author of the article, Patrick Butler, pointed out that the FSI had assets of only £90,000 in its latest accounts, and so it was odd that it had got the contract in the first place.  Now we have an update from something called Your Local Guardian.  The contract has been awarded to the Richmond CVS (Council for Voluntary Services) and the Richmond Adult Community College.  The piece shows how a bad reputation can follow you around.  "A4e was embroiled in scandal last month," it says, "when figures suggested it received £46m from the taxpayer last year, for its work on the Government's flagship Work Programme - despite finding long term jobs for less than 4% of its unemployed clients."
The FSI's accounts for the year ending March 2012 have not yet been received by the Charity Commission, but since 2008 it has received a total of £1,686,933, much of it from A4e, and spent a total of £1,691,561.

The government has come up with a "new" way of dealing with NEETs - those youngsters not in employment, education or training.  The Telegraph calls it an "earn or learn" plan, while the Express, in typical style, headlines it "Go to work or lose benefits".  It could involve "the creation of new-style 'traineeships' set up to prepare school leavers for jobs in relatively low-skilled industries."  Does anyone smell a new contract here?  Perhaps we should recall Labour's original New Deal scheme, back in the late 1990s, set up to training or work placements for NEETs.  That expanded into the full New Deal which was outsourced by David Blunkett in 2006.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Weekend thoughts

As we await the Work Programme performance data, we can see that the excuses are already prepared.  The figures for the number of long-term unemployed show that, far from being reduced by the WP, they are going up.  In September there was a 2% increase on the previous month for those out of work for 12 months or more, and that's a 128% increase on the same time last year.  That is a huge indictment of the scheme that was going to solve everything.  Yet we read (in the Telegraph, for example) that providers are complaining that not enough "hard to help" claimants are being put on the programme.  Those on ESA are not being referred in the numbers expected, and that cuts the possible profits of the providers.  We often read that Jobcentres are not referring people in the expected numbers, but nobody seems to have asked the Jobcentre managers why that is.
Are the providers really concerned that they're not getting enough of the most difficult clients?  They appear to be doing little or nothing to help those they do get.  We know (from the whistle-blower on Channel 4 News) that A4e's advisers have huge caseloads and have to concentrate on those most likely to get work i.e. those who've been out of work for the shortest time.  Perhaps that's because so few people are getting work.  Instead of getting them off the books, providers have to maintain contact with all these clients.  It's a mess, and it will be very difficult to present it as anything else.
We are not to be allowed to know which organisations are taking part in "workfare" programmes.  The DWP has defied the verdict of the Information Commissioner, asserting that the hostile action which would follow that disclosure would make those organisations withdraw.  That would be particularly true, they say, of MWA, the mandatory work activity programme.  The quote (in the Guardian) is that it would collapse "with incalculable losses to the taxpayer and many thousands of persons in long-term unemployment who are supported by the scheme."  I don't get the "losses to the taxpayer" bit.  And as the article says, "The government's own research also showed that the scheme does not help the unemployed to get a job once they've finished the four weeks of work.  It also had no effect on getting people off benefits in the long term." It seems, though, that most of the organisations involved in MWA are in the voluntary sector.
The government is fast approaching a formal return to the age-old concept of deserving and undeserving poor.  It's going ahead with plans to give priority in council housing lists to "working families, ex-servicemen and people who volunteer".  (See another Guardian article.)  This may not work in Labour-controlled areas.  And what constitutes volunteering?  Everybody else who is homeless would be shoved into private rented accommodation, perhaps miles from where they've always lived.
Critics talk about a return to the workhouse.  No, there won't be workhouses.  But the mindset is very similar to that which produced the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Jonty Olliff-Cooper seems to believe that A4e's problem is its image.  If only people knew the company better, and understood what it does, they would see how wonderful it is.  This is, essentially, the mistake made by Emma Harrison.
It's not a good idea to try to psychoanalyse someone you've never met.  But it always seemed to me that Harrison's image of herself was bound up with her image of the company.  "Improving people's lives" and being "passionate" about everything was how she saw herself, and A4e was supposed to reflect that.  She cannot have been unaware that the reality was rather different.  There was plenty of publicity over the years; the reported bad conditions in the Manchester office in 2008; the Benefit Busters programme showing bullying and time-wasting in the Hull office; the Radio 5 Live programme; and so on.  But none of that altered her perception.  She was the charismatic leader of a company that was doing good, and both government and the media encouraged her in that belief.
Olliff-Cooper seems to have a similar outlook.  If A4e had more "exposure" people would see how valuable its work is.  If critics would only talk to him, and come and see for themselves, they would stop criticising.  It's not surprising, given his background in Tory politics, that he doesn't see any fundamental objections to the outsourcing business, and his job, in part, is to promote it.  But he ought to realise that shedding light on the companies involved is dangerous. G4S has just lost a prison contract and has not made the shortlist for a number of others.
Over the years A4e has spent millions on marketing and PR.  Was it money well spent?  It won't count for anything when the performance data for the Work Programme comes out.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

More money, please

It's tedious to have to do it, but I need to respond to a Guardian interview with A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper.  Part of it concerns his previously stated view that "the lines drawn between the public, private and voluntary sectors are becoming meaningless".  Many of the comments under the article make the obvious distinction; profit.  But there's more to it than that.  During the life of the last government many charities were drawn into getting all their funding by competing with the private sector for government contracts.  You could argue that that puts them onto the same footing as the likes of A4e.  But they are still charities, having to put any profits back into the organisation rather than paying out dividends to shareholders.  Of course, it's in A4e's interests to blur the boundaries.  Cooper says, "If you're a business that wants to make social value everything you do, then we get into this really anxious territory.  I want to understand why that is, and how we can change it."  Well, where to start?
You can't imagine any of the other outsourcing companies talking in these terms.  So why is A4e trying to rebrand itself as something other than a profit-making business?  That is, perhaps, obvious.  But it won't wash.
He wants more money for the Work Programme.  I don't need to spell out the objections to that, other than to say that many clients report that absolutely no money is being spent on them.  The article says: "He certainly has solutions at hand: more exposure for organisations such as A4e, describing why they're important and should be valued; government flexibility to take on contracts across a range of sectors to create a joined-up support system."  On the first point, be careful what you wish for.  The exposure suffered by outsourcing companies this year has not exactly been favourable; the more the public understand it, the more they resent it.  On the second point, this is A4e clinging to the ambition of the "super-contract".  Not even this government is going to go down that route.
The last paragraph of the article is blether with a startling obscenity - though it apparently isn't startling in Jonty's world.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The lull before the storm?

It's official that the Work Programme performance data will be published on 27 November.  There can be little doubt that the delay has been because the first year results have been so bad that the government wanted to get another 6 months' worth, in the hope that they show improvement.  The media are gearing up to analyse the figures and present stories about the people behind the numbers.

There's an excellent article in the New Statesman by Alan White, centring on "Why Eco-Actif went bust" but telling the whole story of what he calls UK plc.  If you want to understand how we got to this position of handing over all our services to the private sector, this is the place to start.

A story in the Guardian about Atos reminded me of something which happened with A4e more than a decade ago.  Apparently Atos, in bidding for (and winning) the £400m contract to carry out disability assessments, claimed that they would work with a number of disability organisations.  But those organisations say that they knew nothing about this (and most say that they wouldn't ever work with Atos).  The DWP isn't bothered, however.  Back in 2001 A4e put in bids for all the Business Link organisations (which were working perfectly well but which the government wanted to flog off).  In their bid for the Somerset contract A4e claimed that they had the support of local business leaders, including the leader of the Council.  This was news to the gentleman in question, and the bid had to be withdrawn.  But A4e still got the bulk of the contracts.

The dust has settled after that disastrous interview on Channel 4 News.  Emma Harrison did herself no good at all, and her company's cause has been put back.  But what really matters is whether A4e is doing what it is paid to do.  We have to wait a while to find that out.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Emma again - and rewriting history

If Wednesday night's interview on Channel 4 News was a disaster for A4e owner Emma Harrison, she hasn't given up.  Yesterday she appeared in a filmed interview for the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire edition of the Sunday Politics on BBC TV.  You can find it here, 36 mins and 30 secs in.  The introduction managed to get the facts wrong.  She was said to have resigned after criticism of her success rate.  That was only part of it, of course.  It was the publicity about fraud which exercises Harrison.  "The newspaper headlines were so wrong and so inflammatory," she said.  The accusations were "proved not to be true".  Hang on.  There were instances of fraud by A4e staff, just as there were by staff of other w2w companies.  Their own 2009 internal report showed probable fraud.  And the Slough case goes back to court this Wednesday.  But if Harrison says something often enough it must be true.  She says that it took a lot of nerve to stand up to the bullies.  A brief clip of John Healey MP shows him referring to "huge personal payment" for Harrison, but that wasn't put to her.  Apropos the leaked numbers, we did learn something interesting.  She said they "aren't meaningful" because there's now 18 months worth of data.  Does this mean, as we suspected, that the long delay in publishing the figures was so that the DWP could put out 18 months worth rather than 12, because it's got a bit better?  The interview was heavily edited.  Back in the studio, there was a brief discussion between two MPs.  The Conservative, Craig Whittaker, stuck to the line that payment by results is the best model because if the companies don't succeed they don't get paid.  He doesn't appear to have considered what happens to the clients.  The Labour MP Fabian Hamilton said that he didn't like PBR when his own government introduced it, and thinks the fact that the owner of a company can take £8m out of it shows it isn't working.  He would like to see civil servants trained to do the job.
Whether this last few days has been part of a determined effort at a come-back by Emma Harrison is hard to tell.  I suspect the company would rather it wasn't.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

It "needs throwing out"

Channel 4 News tonight followed up it's piece on A4e and interview with Emma Harrison last night with an interview with Anna Burke, former head of Eco-Actif.  This was a social enterprise which was a sub-contractor of A4e until it went out of business.  Ms Burke was shown the figures which Harrison claimed were wrong, and she agreed that they looked accurate and were "highly typical".  She said that clients were divided into red, green and amber; the red ones being those who were shelved as being too hard to help.

Krishnan Guru-Murty said that a number of A4e clients had contacted the programme, and they showed a few of the comments, which were very critical.  They then replayed Harrison's "very improbable statement" description of a similar comment made on last night's programme.  Ms Burke referred to the "bullying" contention of Harrison, and said that the reputation throughout the Work Programme was that it was the clients who were being bullied.  It "needs throwing out," she said.

I don't think this story is going to go away.


She was "bullied out of A4e".  That's the headline phrase in the Press Association piece on last night's Emma Harrison interview, and it's been taken up by many of the reports.  Harrison is a savvy enough media operator to know that if she used the word enough it would become the story.  But bullied by whom?  Did she say "political types"?  Does that mean the members of the Public Accounts Committee who objected to her £8.6m dividend?  Or were there people in government who told her to go?  I don't know, and don't particularly care.  To respond to questions on the failure of her company to fulfil its contract by claiming to have been bullied was only one bizarre aspect of this interview.  Of course, if her children were bullied after the revelations, that's regrettable.  And it was sad that innocent employees were caught up in it.  But most people would have struggled to work up any sympathy for Harrison herself.
Much else was odd.  She kept insisting that the figures Channel 4 had (from a "reliable source", said Jackie Long) were wrong, but said she didn't know what the right figures were.  If she'd said, correctly, that they were not allowed to disclose the true figures; or if she'd fudged it, as the company did; then that might have been the end of it.  But she went from saying that the figures were wrong to accusing the interviewer of bullying her and from there to saying that the programme was making up stories about her for political reasons.
Guru-Murthy kept bringing it back to the facts, but Harrison responded by virtually calling one of the clients a liar.  She had invested "£50m of her own money" in the Work Programme.  Jaws dropped at that point.  The design of the WP meant that providers had to be able to finance it before they got any money back.  Whatever bank account A4e's finance came out of, it is difficult to see it as Harrison's own money.  But that was the tone of her responses from then on.  She hadn't expected the interview to be so unsympathetic, it seems, and was angry.  The Work Programme was the most successful they'd ever run.  And she herself had helped tens of thousands into work.  People came up to her in the street to thank her.  She had just been "useful to have a go at".
This was about the failure of the Work Programme, and it could be thought that it became about Emma Harrison instead.  It was her name that was trending on Twitter late last night, and people were calling it a "car crash" for her.  Now we have to wait for the official figures.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

She was bullied and the figures are wrong - Emma on Channel 4 News

There has just been an astonishing interview with Emma Harrison on Channel 4 News.  There's an account of the facts on which it's based here.  It revolved around leaked performance data for the first year of the Work Programme - you can read the analysis on the Factcheck blog - which show that out of 93,127 attachments (new clients) there were only 3,400 outcomes.  Just 4%.  For that they've got £46m in fees.  The government's minimum target is 5.5%.  There was a brief explanation of who Emma Harrison is.  Then we heard from two clients.  Roland said it had taken 8 months for him to get even basic training; his sessions with A4e lasted 15 minutes and he was simply made to apply, under threat of sanctions, for jobs he knew he had no hope of getting.  Gill, a former solicitor with a 20-year career break, said that A4e were not interested in anything she said and didn't have the skills to enable them to tailor support.
A former senior manager with A4e, with his identity hidden, said that staff had "unmanageable caseloads" and were having to focus on their "top 10 targets".  He also said that customers often found their own jobs but A4e could claim for them if they showed some input, so might pay bus fares for the first week.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy revealed that in addition to the £8.6m dividend that Harrison took last year, she took a further £250,000 before stepping down.  What, he asked her, did she have to say to those customers?  The interview became an odd exchange.  Harrison insisted that a lot of the detail was wrong, including the numbers and the 4% outcomes.  A4e had told her that the numbers were wrong.  But she didn't know what the right numbers were.  She then accused Guru-Murthy of bullying her, and that word kept recurring.  They were making up stories for political reasons.  Asked about the extra dividend when they were not meeting their target, she said that she had invested £50m in the Work Programme (she appeared a bit confused at this point about what was her own money and what was A4e profits).  She is an entrepreneur who has helped tens of thousands.  She was sorry that the customers featured were not happy with the service, but then said that Roland's was "an improbable statement".
Harrison insisted that Channel 4 is biassed, having not reported that the fraud allegations had been shown to be untrue.  KGM said that they'd reported it at the start of the programme.  This was, he said, about value for money.  They appeared to disagree about why she had been asked onto the programme.  She kept using the word "bullying" and saying that figures were not true.  Why, asked KGM, did A4e say that it was a different company from 2 years ago?  She said that you could read that statement how you wanted.  Was the Work Programme set up to fail, he asked.  It was the most successful programme they've ever run, she said. Would she like to apologise to anyone else?  She said that her staff had been bullied, it had been a political maelstrom, and she was "useful to have a got at".
It was quite extraordinary, and I wonder how the current A4e bosses feel about it.  Not best pleased, I bet.

Monday, 22 October 2012


One of those "Top 50" tables appeared the other day on the Training Journal website.  A4e has made it into their top 50 training businesses.  Their definition of "training" is quite elastic.  21 of their 50 companies are in the "employment training" sector.  But it's fiscal success which is the criterion, not how successful they are at training.
And that raises the question of what actual training is available through A4e's w2w operation.  Leave aside such little courses as Basic Food Hygiene and Health and Safety, and also basic literacy and numeracy.  What actual skills training is being provided?  I'm not saying there's none.  I just haven't heard of any.  The "tailored support" supposedly available in that black box doesn't seem to include the up-skilling that the long-term unemployed really need.  Some qualifications are essential before you can get particular jobs; the CSCS card in construction, for instance, or the SIA licence for the security industry.  But people say that the providers (not just A4e) won't pay for this.  Former professionals require refresher courses which they can't afford themselves, but these are not forthcoming.  Someone genuinely wanting to become self-employed or freelance can't get the advice and training he needs.
Is this unfair?

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Talking tough

Mark Hoban, the employment minister, is reported in the Telegraph as saying that the unemployed should "roll up their sleeves and find jobs".  It's because the new sanctions rules start tomorrow.  13 weeks, then 26 weeks then off altogether for 3 years, if you don't comply with the rules.  The article says that, "Those stripped of benefits would have to apply for special 'hardship payments' and if successful are paid 60% of the amount they were getting in benefits.
There's huge public support for this, of course, and people will be confirmed in their opinion by the very dodgy figures from the DWP.  Last year, "Jobcentre advisers took action against 495,000 claimants for not doing enough to find work."  Presumably that includes the people sanctioned not by the Jobcentre but at the behest of the WP providers.  Naturally, no one mentions the fact that a good number of those were completely unjustified.  We're told that the figure includes 72,000 "who had refused an offer of employment".  Really?  I very much doubt that it was as simple as that.
The DWP should ensure that there is a complete paper trail for every "sanction doubt" as it's called.  There should be a dated copy of every appointment letter sent out, and a log of all letters posted.  There should be a separate system for such "sanction doubts" when the provider or JC has accepted the explanation of the client.  At present far too much power is in the hands of people who are not equipped to wield it.
Hoban is determined to talk tough.  "I make no apology for this," he says.  For people who refuse to play be the rules it will be "a rude awakening".  Along with the bedroom tax, I assume.

Friday, 19 October 2012

"Descending into chaos"

So says the Financial Times about the Work programme.  Mind you, they're quoting Labour's Liam Byrne.  But the verdict is based on a slump in the number of people being referred to the WP, down from 65,000 in February to 40,000 in August.  "Opinion is divided as to why," they say.  Some think that the pattern of employment is responsible, with fewer people being out of work for the 9 months stretch which would get them referred.  Certainly this would have an effect if there is a big increase in temporary jobs and unwanted part-time jobs.  Another view is that the Jobcentres have lost so many staff  that they are not able to keep up with the referrals.  Whatever the reason, it's "beginning to worry the market", says Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA.  Mark Hoban, the minister, isn't worried.  He says that referrals are higher than predicted when the companies bid for the contracts.  Byrne is pushing for publication of the performance data - and so are we all.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

"Whipping girl of the welfare apologists"

That's the curious description of A4e's owner Emma Harrison in the headline to an interview in the Sunday Times last Sunday.  It's a neat way of insulting all of us.  And another curiosity is that this is described as Harrison's "first interview since the scandal", completely ignoring the interview she gave to the Daily Mail on 11 August.  There's nothing new in this one, except that the self-justification is stronger than ever.  "I was busy helping families get back to work," she says.  The history of Emma and her company follows, complete with tuck-shop incident, and then the account of how she thought of the "family champions".  Her initiative was the inspiration for the whole government programme.  But then, "Suddenly I'm put forward as the face of all evil".  The article goes on: "Harrison does not deny that there was wrongdoing at A4e, but she believes it was blown out of proportion by political point-scoring.  Those who wanted to attack the government's controversial welfare policies had a handy whipping girl."  On the money, that £8.6m, she's still "unrepentant", giving the same explanation of her entrepreneurship as she gave to the Mail.  She now spends her time working with her Foundation for Social Improvement, helping small charities.
Perhaps this is another attempt at rehabilitating Harrison's reputation.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

More figures - but not the right ones

The latest unemployment figures are out, showing the number of unemployed down, the number in work up.  Good.  Except that they mask realities which are not quite so rosy.
Far too many of those extra jobs are part-time, and taken by people who want full-time work.  Then there's the fact that the population of the country is higher than ever, which has an effect on the percentages, and lots of people who would have retired haven't been able to.  And the figures are an average; in many parts of the country unemployment has risen again.  The Express reports on a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that 66 people "chase every retail job".
But perhaps the most worrying fact is that long-term unemployment isn't going down.  While David Cameron threw in a plug for the wonderful Work Programme at PMQs today, it's this group which the WP was supposed to help.  And that, perhaps, explains why we still have no results for the first year of the WP.  It's those long-term unemployed who were going to provide the big bucks for the providers.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Odd bits of news

You may be interested to know that A4e is ranked 164th in the Sunday Times top 250 league table of medium sized private companies.  Apparently the table is of companies which reported increased sales or operating profit.

Another bit of news concerns the civil servant Alan Cave, who was in charge of welfare-to-work schemes.  he has now taken a job with Serco.  Paul Flynn MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, condemned the move as an "egregious example of the revolving door" between government and industry.  There is nothing to stop the move, because Cave is apparently "not senior enough" to come up against the government's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.  So that's all right, then.

You might have missed this in the Telegraph today.  "120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco."  It doesn't matter how often this lie is exposed, it keeps coming back, because it's so convenient to press and government.  The 120,000 figure was plucked out of the air, a guesstimate done for completely different purposes some years ago.  It gave Emma Harrison her temporary exalted position as family tsar.  Now, local authorities identify those households which cause a lot of problems and are involved with lots of different agencies.  Some councils have been doing it for some years, and assigning a single officer as the conduit for all services and advice.  But of course the government wanted the private sector to have a profit opportunity, so private companies are now contracted to do this.  So those families, however many of them there are, will now not be able to spend their benefits as they wish. No more fags, booze or drugs.  And all spending on essentials to be done through designated supermarkets. So no more buying clothes in charity shops, or household essentials in the pound shop.  Go to Tesco or wherever, present your card at the till and proclaim to the checkout girl and everyone around you that you're a troubled family.  You can bet it won't stop there.  The far right want all benefits claimants to be paid in this way, and if it doesn't come before the next election, it will surely come after it if the Conservatives get in.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Private and public

Everything about Atos and its contract to carry out medical assessments is controversial.  Now there's a situation that strikes some MPs as ridiculous.  The Guardian reports that Atos has sub-contracted to an arm of the NHS in Scotland to carry out its new contract, to assess people for the new disability benefits.  The obvious question asked by the MPs is why contract to the private sector only for the business to sub-contract back to the public sector?  Why not go straight to the public sector?
But this is not new.  In the Work Programme there are a number of local councils acting as sub-contractors to the primes.  The contracts were deliberately designed to make it impossible for a public sector body to bid as a prime, so however well the councils do they will not get the full reward for their efforts.  To understand this we need to go back to the New Deal contracts prior to 2006.  Jobcentre Plus regionally contracted with many different organisations, including local councils, to deliver training.  When David Blunkett outsourced the whole thing, such organisations were relegated to sub-contractor status, losing 10% of their earnings to the likes of A4e (which secured a large chunk of the contracts).  Public sector involvement fell away.  The current payment-by-results model doesn't encourage such involvement.
Of course it's nuts to have a private company sub-contracting to a public sector body.  But the aim is to make money for the private sector.

The Public Accounts Committee has published the National Audit Office's report on its investigations into A4e.  It just fills out what we had already read.  Problems with one Mandatory Work Activity contract, so it was terminated.  No evidence of fraud in the Work Programme, but some ineffective validation checks.  The need for some remedial action to "improve levels of awareness amongst A4e staff of their Whistleblower policiyand procedures".  This was the report which angered Margaret Hodge and the committee because it was done without looking at A4e's own internal report on the fraud risks in the company.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

£10bn cuts

If you are unemployed you will be aware by now that it's your fault.  You lounge about at home in the lap of luxury while your neighbours go out early every morning to work for their living.  You need to be forced to work.  Ridiculous, isn't it?  But instead of having a rational debate about the reform of welfare, the Conservatives have decided to cut benefits piecemeal.  Having spent at least a decade in collusion with the right-wing press to demonise benefits claimants, they can now conduct polls and focus groups to show how popular it is to cut benefits.  Surprise, surprise.  There's no point in debating the rights and wrongs of this, because it's going to happen.  What is worth talking about is a radical rethink of the whole basis of welfare.  If you have any thoughts on this, please comment.

There have been a number of interesting reports in the last few days, both factual and speculative.  A piece in the Telegraph tells of the views of a group of Tory MPs.  They want to cut JSA by 10% after 6 months of unemployment and by another 10% after 12 months.  Another far right group, the think tank Policy Exchange, has come up with a report that shows that nearly a third of people leaving JSA are back "on the dole" (their words) within eight months.  Now, the conclusions they draw from this are bizarre.  Jobcentre Plus should have the same incentives as WP providers (despite the fact that there are as yet no published results for the WP).  Nasty things should happen to claimants of top-up benefits who are not doing all they can to find higher-paid or full-time work.  It seems to be about penalising people for the economic reality they can do nothing about.

Another interesting snippet comes from a BBC news piece about a disability rights campaigner at the Tory conference.  G4S has raised concerns about the number of referrals they are getting.  They have halved in recent months.  This is not contradicted by a DWP spokesman, who says that the number of referrals was always predicted to fall after the first year.  This is puzzling because it doesn't square with what we've heard about at least one A4e office, where the first appointment for someone referred was 7 weeks after the first phone call, and staff said they were overwhelmed by the numbers.  Was that unusual?

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The right debate?

There's been an interesting discussion on the Guardian's website about outsourcing in local government.  A "panel" of eleven people with professional interests in the subject took part - they included A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper - but other people could join in as well.  Ploughing through the whole thing will probably make you glaze over.  The people who are opposed to, or wary of, outsourcing are outnumbered, but raise obvious points about the way in which the private sector running a monopoly sucks money away from service delivery, the dangers of failed contracts having to be expensively returned to the public sector, and the unaccountability inherent in long contracts.

There are two aspects of this discussion which interest me.  The first concerns language.  All businesses and areas of interest have their own jargon, which saves time among insiders.  But it can also serve to shut out other people.  Worse, it can be used to create an illusion that only an elite understands these things.  The language of the discourse becomes opaque and virtually devoid of meaning - but it sounds good.  Neologisms are coined casually, and no one dare ask what they mean.  It becomes very competitive.  And language can be used to shift meaning, to redefine and rebrand.  Take the use of the word "commissioning" in this debate.  What you and I know as outsourcing, contracting out, becomes something else, in a way that's hard to define.  Olliff-Cooper's use of language throughout the discussion illustrates all of these points. It might be an interesting exercise for someone (not me) to analyse it.  But what matters is that for him and many of the other participants the question is not, "Can local government survive without the private sector?" (the original question posed by the piece) but rather how much more of the functions of local government can we contract out.  There is no moral dimension; even issues of democratic accountability can be brushed aside.

The second interesting aspect of the discussion is what it tells us about A4e's plans and ambitions. 
  1. "At my firm, A4e, we are going to be crowdsourcing what data it is that people would like to see."  Olliff-Cooper then states the obvious caveats, that basically you can't do it.  If you're wondering what "crowdsourcing" means, try Wikipedia.  You won't be much the wiser, because the definition appears to be elastic, but it seems to mean most commonly "outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people".  Whatever, he is reaffirming A4e's intention to be open and transparent.
  2. They have grasped that there is a difference between what Olliff-Cooper calls human and commodity services, and states the problems that this raises quite sensibly.  His solution, however, is "outcome commissioning, or, to put it in less wonky terms, picking what it is that you care about and paying for successfully getting that."  There are huge moral implications to this, of course.
  3. The ambition to have contracts which embrace all aspects of people's lives is still there.  He talks about commissioning "for more than one outcome: providers being repsonsible for helping a person in the round, with their debt, their mental health, their employment, offending, etc."  
So it was an interesting debate, but not the one we need to have.