I thought we might get a day off, that the furore would be dying down. But no.First, A4e put out a press release yesterday. Two things are really exercising them. The first is that continual reference to 9% outcomes on Pathways to Work. That wasn't the figure. They don't actually say what the true figure was, but we've seen low twenties percent mentioned. The target, however, was 30%. The figure isn't some aspiration, it's what the bidders promise in order to get the contract. The best performer on this contract was Jobcentre Plus! A4e has consistently underperformed, promising 50% outcomes on the 2006 privatised New Deal contracts and delivering around 25%. Flexible New Deal was even worse. So while it must be galling to see the error repeated, the fact of poor performance is inescapable.
The second factor is the reporting of the fraud investigation. A4e states again that the disclosure was the result of their own internal processes and they reported it to the police. Today that becomes somewhat irrelevant as we learn that four people have been arrested. (See the BBC report.) Now, I know nothing about what went on in Slough. But A4e is one of a number of contractors which pay commission to staff for getting someone into work. The temptation to fiddle must be that much stronger.
Yesterday the Guardian published a long article by John Harris. Most of it rehashes what has already been published, but he has spoken to Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the PAC. She became annoyed, she said, when she found that A4e had the contract in her own area but sub-contracted it to a local charity while taking 12.5% of the attachment fee. Harris points out that this all began under Labour, and she accepts that. It was a mistake. Harris is one of the first journalists to see this fuss as part of a wider problem. "The rise of A4e also highlights a very modern fact of public life: handing over large swaths of what the state used to do to the private sector has become so mundane as to barely attract comment, and some people have been doing very well out of it indeed." Now we read on the BBC news site that a London charity, London Citizens, is claiming to be doing much better at getting people into work than the big contractors, and doing it much more cheaply. And the article says: "There has been increasing scrutiny of work-to-welfare schemes."
That's what we need, of course. The current targeting of A4e should be the start of a much wider debate on the role of private profit in public service delivery.