Monday, 30 April 2012

Complaints in Bootle, and correction

Labour MP Bill Esterson is having another go at A4e.  Not long ago he ran a complaint on his website from a man who had been referred to A4e and said that they "run a campaign of intimidation and undermine any self-confidence you may have."  The story was marred slightly by mention of a 50-page contract; but the gist of it was clear enough.  Now Esterson returns to the attack with an account from a 48-year-old woman who " was left so angry at the scheme, she has turned to her Labour MP for help to 'expose the disgraceful practices of A4e'." 
What seems to have happened is that an induction in Bootle was a shambles, with no one knowing what to do with the clients but treating them like naughty children or criminals.  The woman "was introduced to a placement work advisor who proceeded to talk to the group like a primary school teacher addressing a group of six year olds. We were told to 'shut up, sit down, don't speak, put your hands down, you can't ask questions and don't speak over me'. She then proceeded to bring in a team of health workers  and told me in front of the group that I should have a chlamydia test, there and then."  She said that the atmosphere was so confrontational that it was dangerous, and that the experience was humiliating for people who were already likely to be suffering from depression and lack of confidence.  The MP says he getting a lot of similar complaints about A4e and wants an investigation into its practices.
There's always another side to a story like this so we have to be cautious.  But how can a company alienate people so comprehensively on their first day?  Lack of organisation is one thing; but staff attitudes towards clients are fundamental.  And they come from management.

Another MP, Fiona Mactaggart, has been asking every department of government what contracts it has with A4e.  The Department of Defence said, "None".  But now they've issued a correction.  "The Ministry of Defence has one contract with A4e. This is for the provision of a trial of early leaver services, to assist service personnel leaving the armed forces with their transition back into civilian life. The contract is for a period of 12 months, commencing February 2012, and has a nil value contract management fee."  (Does that last bit mean that it's payment by results?)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Those 120,000 families

Emma Harrison reached the height of her influence with her "family champions" idea.  The government reckoned that there were 120,000 "troubled families" responsible for most of what was wrong in the country, and Harrison persuaded ministers that she had the solution.  There were many people at the time who criticised both the analysis and the proposed remedy.  One established charity, Family Action was particularly concerned about the damage which Harrison's approach could do.  Now a report has been published which shows the flaws in the original thinking.  It has been written by Professor Ruth Levitas for the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK Project, and can be accessed through the Indus Delta site.  
Levitas shows how the original figure of 120,000 families was based on a misuse of statistics, and how "troubled families" were redefined as "troublesome families" by government rhetoric.  She quotes a Cameron speech: "That’s why today, I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family."   The government has conflated families which have disadvantages which are not self-inflicted with those who cause expensive trouble.  Levitas goes on to show how this rhetoric has fed a vindictive attitude towards the poor.  It's an excellent report and well worth reading.
Emma Harrison was not, of course, responsible for this.  It would be truer to say that she jumped on the bandwagon.  She proposed a simplistic solution; volunteers could work with these families to get them into work.  "Working Families Everywhere", a pilot scheme, was born, and we had the toe-curling suggestion that these volunteers be known as "Emmas".  But Harrison had, possibly unwittingly, ruled A4e out of bidding for the contracts for European Social Fund money to pay private companies to do the work with local authorities in a professional way.  A new "tsar" was appointed, Louise Casey, a woman with very different experience from Harrison's.  And when the torrent of bad publicity for A4e was unleashed, Harrison stepped down from the ongoing WFE scheme.
I am tempted to draw lessons from this story, but readers can do that themselves.  Perhaps the lesson for Harrison is that hubris results in nemesis. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

From bad to worse

Another story from the Guardian's Patrick Butler details more fallout from A4e's situation.  A contract awarded to the Foundation for Social Improvement, a charity set up and largely funded by A4e, has been withdrawn.  Richmond council gave the £85,000 contract to the FSI for charity business skills training, but has now decided to pull out,citing the potential risks of giving a contract to an organisation so dependent financially on a company now under investigation.  Butler hints that it was odd that the FSI got the contract in the first place, given that it had assets of less than £9,000 in its latest accounts.  Well done to Richmond's Lib Dem leader on the council, Stephen Knight, for raising concerns.

Could this be the start?

Patrick Butler of the Guardian reports an interesting development in the outsourcing business - A4e's failure to get a contract.  The contracts are for assessing people's eligibility for Personal Independence Payments, which will replace DLA.  Ten companies have been shortlisted, including all the usual suspects - G4S, Serco, Atos, Ingeus etc.  But not A4e, who did put in a bid.  To have shortlisted A4e would have meant provoking howls of protest, because they are still under investigation.  We are still waiting to hear about that contract for the EHRC helpline.  Exaro broke the story that A4e had got the contract; the government denied it.  But we still haven't heard who has got it.  Not including A4e in the latest contracts sets a significant precedent.  When they are exonerated will they be back in the mix?  Or is this the start of the decline of the company?

It must be galling for Emma Harrison to see her former employee Hayley Taylor continuing to pull in the dosh.  She has a new American series on More4 tonight.  The Liverpool Echo sounds less than thrilled at the prospect. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Another arrest

It's reported that a sixth person has been arrested from the Slough A4e office in connection with the fraud investigation.  All 6 are free on bail.  No details of the charges have ever been given, but it's hinted that the fraud involves false job outcome claims. 
And that reminds us of the investigation which is supposedly ongoing into whether there is "systemic fraud" at A4e.  No news of that, but I bet it's only a matter of time before it's announced that there were only isolated cases of fraud, it's not systemic, and all sorts of procedures are in place to minimise the risk .... blah, blah.  Because, as we've said before, the government can't contemplate finding A4e guilty and taking away their contracts.  We know that there are allegations against other providers, so why single out A4e?  It makes the Work Programme look like a row of dominoes; knock the first one down and they all fall over.  
One examination that A4e has to face, along with the other primes, is an assessment of their compliance with the Merlin Standard.  This guides the relationship between primes and their sub-contractors.  The process runs throughout May and June, but there's no statement of when we'll hear the results.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


David Cameron was made to look foolish in his dazzled admiration of A4e's Emma Harrison.  But, as the Morning Star points out, Labour had been just as convinced of A4e's ability to solve the nation's problems.  We know about David Blunkett, of course.  And the CBE.  And we have noted that A4e's Mark Lovell has been a guest of the Young Fabians.  But the article points out another connection with Labour.  A4e contributed an article to a Labour pamphlet last year meant to show how business-friendly the party is.  The article was about A4e's work at Blundeston prison.  But as Morning Star points out, Ofsted rated the company's work at Blundeston, and at another prison, "inadequate".  Yet A4e was recently awarded two new prison education contracts.

Some good news.  We've told the story of the fight by an Edinburgh group, ECAP, to get A4e to recognise claimants' right to have a representative with them at interviews.  You can read the story here.  They've won, and A4e have backed down, but not before people like Peter and Ram were put through huge pressure.  Congratulations to them and all the group.

Please remember that if you send me a comment which is critical of a named A4e office or identifiable staff member, I can't publish it.  It may be true, but unless I can back it up, it's libellous.  And to the anonymous poster who has twice pointed out to me the links between A4e, Carley Consult and the DWP.  Thanks, it's interesting, but not unusual, sadly.  I'm hanging on to your post.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Those unemployment figures

We're told today that unemployment is down just a bit.  But long-term joblessness has actually gone up, especially amongst the over 50s, and a great many of the jobs people have managed to get are part-time.  And that must be a worry for the Work Programme providers, who can only claim money for full-time job outcomes, and get most money for those who've been out of work longest.  There continues to be most emphasis on unemployment of young people, understandably.  But that growing army of workless middle aged people has serious implications for society as well.
Grayling has assured us, though, that the WP offers "tailored support".   In one of the reports in the papers we were told that the WP is currently showing 30% outcomes; but I can't find that report now, and it may have been edited out of the online versions.  Mustn't give anything away too soon.
And what of A4e?  The company appears to be keeping a low profile.  And Emma Harrison seems to have disappeared.  Has her picture been removed from all those walls yet?

Monday, 16 April 2012

Inside the black box

It's one of those daft phrases invented to obscure a dangerous reality: the black box model.  The DWP told bidders for the Work Programme contracts that they would be able to do whatever they liked without interference or inspection.  "We won't tell you how to get people into work.  You will be so motivated by potential profit that you will do whatever is necessary.  And we won't bug you with Ofsted inspections."  And along with that freedom, the private companies were also handed a very dangerous power: the ability to make people destitute, without appeal.
So what is inside that black box?  There's a wonderful blog post doing the rounds by Izzy Koksal.  She describes the surreal experience of a "motivational course" she was sent on by A4e.  A4e and others seem to think it's worth spending money on this damaging nonsense but not on genuine skills training.  I contrast this with my own experience back in the early 90s.  I was sent by the JC on a 2-day programme for unemployed professionals (though the guy running it had insisted on having non-professional people as well).  It was practical and helpful, and he also tackled the motivational stuff.  He was concerned about people who saw their identity bound up in their jobs.  He told me that I would be all right because I didn't fall into that trap.  I wonder what that chap would think of the bogus psychology being perpetrated by the "trainer" Izzy describes.  Do read it.
I've had some more disturbing but unpublishable comments.  One points out that clients are being pushed into self-employment but are not allowed to seek advice from the Jobcentre or anyone else.  That means they are totally dependent on a private company which cannot be impartial. 
Another highlights the problems of the power to "sanction".  I couldn't publish it as a comment because it named the A4e office, but here's the edited version:
"I too have had problems with letters, just recently they failed to send one out at all. Previously at A4e **** when I was last in, I asked when the next appointment was. My advisor simply said that the letter I would receive would tell me when. So naturally when I never received the letter the appointment was missed. This was the first time I had missed an appointment however and A4e chose not to sanction me this time, whether they knew they'd made a mistake or whether I was getting the benefit of the doubt, hard to say. If it was the latter, next time I might not be so lucky.  What further distressed me about this though was that A4e didn't tell me I wasn't going to get sanctioned, on the phone they said 'You shouldn't be sanctioned but the jobcentre are getting funny about that recently...'  implying that it was up to the job centre whether I get sanctioned or not. Fearing for my financial situation (for those who don't know, a sanction doesn't just take away your JSA but your housing/council benefits too), I rang up the Jobcentre and they informed me that not only did a sanction hinge on the private contractors say so, but the system had changed under this work programme and sanctions can now be applied without getting the claimants side of the story. Meaning, if a letter goes missing and I miss an appointment, any benefits I rely on could be cut off before I even find out about it.  I can hardly complain right now, seeing as this time I didn't receive a sanction. But what about next time? What about the thousands of other people who genuinely didn't receive letters and will automatically lose benefits because of a lack of safeguard against A4e's mistakes?  The government claims this work programme is different to the last one. It is in some respects, it is at least more draconian. But there's no real difference. It seems incredible to me that a work programme which failed for the last 5 years would be renewed yet again by a government that's supposed to be fiscally conservative (It'll cost the tax payer what, 5 billion over this parliament? George Osbourne wants another 10 billion out of the welfare budget, scrapping what is bound to be a totally useless work programme would get them half way there if only it was politically viable). It's even more incredible that providers who clearly failed the vast majority of their clients last time around would be given increased powers to sanction on-demand a third time around.  I sincerely hope it was a one off, for my sake and everyone elses on the work programme."
Smaller organisations and charities which signed up as sub-contractors have told clients that they can't fund training courses because they can't afford it.  While this may be true, it leaves the clients without help or hope, and it begs the question of why these organisations signed up in the first place.
It's becoming clear, as well, that clients who don't submit tamely to something they see as wrong are being threatened, and understandably they don't want to risk destitution or a permanent black mark against them.  The government handed power to private companies which are not fit to wield it.  That's what the "black box model" amounts to.

PS.  This forum thread just popped up.  Scroll down and read the letter and the piece about Instant Training.  Their "success stories from partners" are all from A4e staff, so it's not clear whether they provide courses for anyone else.  I can't find any mention of NLP. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Get in touch

There are two comments I haven't published.  One is on "Reputations" and begins, "The main issue I had .... " and is anonymous.  Will the writer please send a comment with their email address (which I obviously won't publish).  I want to put you in touch with a journalist.  Be assured that journalists can protect your identity.  If you don't want to do that, I strongly suggest that you get in touch with your local CAB or Law Centre.
The second is from Lee on "Untold Stories" and concerns letters of appointment arriving late.  I'd like your email address too, Lee.  And I'd love to hear from anyone else who has personal experience of this.  I know that there have been many complaints of providers sending out letters of appointment late and by second class post, and then sanctioning people who don't attend because they didn't get the letter.  We need to be able to substantiate that and work out whether it's only one or two providers doing it, or all of them.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Untold stories

MPs and journalists, as well as bloggers like me, have been sent many stories about the Work Programme, from employees of the contractors and the clients.  When the furore over A4e broke, the stories were mainly about the earlier contracts, and the government was keen to say that it was all different under the WP.  It's now clear that if it is different, it's no better.  Some of the stories, like the one told to MP Bill Esterson, need further checking.  But there's a major problem about publicising most of these stories.  The employees need to keep their jobs; and the clients have no option but to stay on the WP.  So nothing can be published which would identify them.  And if it's all so vague that no one could verify it, then it can't be published.  And that tends to mean that the real stories don't get told.
Take the staff member who is being driven into illness by the relentless pressure to meet targets and disregard the best interests of her vulnerable clients.  If she does leave her job, the story will be denied by her employer.  
Or take the chap who battled to get information from the organisation to which he was referred about why they wouldn't pay for any training.  There's a story there I can't tell, for his sake, but it has serious implications for the whole conduct of the WP.
There has been a great deal of publicity about how discontented the charities are.  They signed up as sub-contractors and some are now regretting it, but very few feel able to flout the gagging order.  Local council groups are also involved.  
One complaint which crops up a lot from clients is the lack of skills training.  The "black box" model seems to mean that providers can do whatever they like, and Grayling said that it would mean they would do "whatever it takes" to get people into work.  But they appear to be refusing to lay out money on the training courses which would enable people to get a job.  So the "support" they offer amounts to nothing for most of the clients.
It's not just about A4e.  The stories concern all the primes and sub-contractors.  And they won't go away.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


The Daily Mail has "updated" its article about A4e being the preferred bidder for the EHRC helpline contract.  The amendment seems to consist of the insertion of: "A Home Office spokesman said: ‘A4e have no contracts with the Home Office or its executive agencies.  The procurement process for the Equality Advisory and Support service is ongoing and A4e have not been made the preferred bidder for this contract.’"  So the Home Office is denying the whole story.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the end.    
At the same time a Labour MP, Bill Esterson, has used his own website to call A4e "a Victorian workhouse scam".  His constituent, 50-year-old Philip Hammond, has been with A4e for 14 months.  He says: "A4e is bullying people at a time when they need support. They run a campaign of intimidation and undermine any self confidence you may have in yourself."  He is particularly incensed by the 50-page contract people have to sign which gives A4e the right to monitor them for two years.  He regards this as forcing people to sign away their human rights.  The MP supports all this.  
Okay, this is politics, and somewhat over the top.  But an article in the Telegraph yesterday shows that the government is squirming about the whole subject of fraud in the W2W field.  Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, is pursuing the fact that Cameron had announced that there had been 125 cases of "alleged wrongdoing".  Only 11 of those related to A4e.  She wants the details of the others disclosed, and a Tory MP has supported her.  Chris Grayling has said that most of the 125 cases were not really fraud, but a few of them were down to "employee malpractice".  The DWP is still deciding whether to publish the details.  Meanwhile, reports the Telegraph, "the National Audit Office is conducting an internal inquiry into the DWP’s approach to investigating allegations of fraud across providers in the back-to-work sector.  The findings of that inquiry will feed into a PAC evidence session on May 23."
It's against this background that A4e's new PR people are trying to rehabilitate the company's reputation.  I suspect it won't be about planting more of the good news stories in the local press.  George Bridges and his colleagues from Quiller Consultants are more likely to be lobbying politicians.  Disclosures of wrongdoing by other companies are helpful.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

And yet more contracts

Thanks to the Richmond upon Thames Liberal Democrats for this story.  Richmond upon Thames council, like a lot of other local authorities, funded the Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) to support and train people in small, local voluntary organisations and charities.  The CVS branches usually consist of paid professionals helped by volunteers.  They are probably not experienced in drawing up bids for contracts to do the work.  So when Richmond Council, led by Conservative peer Lord True, decided to put the work out to contract for £85,000 the CVS lost - to the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI).  Not A4e - or not quite.  The FSI is the creation of Emma Harrison and has received £1m from A4e.  Harrison is Chair of the Trustees (although the piece on the website about her doesn't mention A4e) and two other A4e directors, Jo Blundell and Andrew Dutton, are also trustees.  It's a registered charity, and it was originally about helping small charities to raise funds.  Now it is obviously using the bid-writing skills of A4e; it is based at A4e's Westminster offices, so it would be silly not to.  As Lib Dem leader on the council, Stephen Knight, says: "It beggars belief that Richmond council is intent on handing a contract to the A4e group of organisations, while the government and police are investigating evidence of widespread fraud and mismanagement. Local residents will be shocked that the Tories are intent of pulling funding from the local Council for Voluntary Service and instead handing a contract to a scandal-hit organisation based in Westminster."

There's an interesting piece on the Morning Star website (scroll down) headed "A4E isn't always terrible. Sometimes it is just mediocre."  A4e was hired to train 30,000 childminders in 2004, and the writer has got hold of an evaluation of the contract carried out by consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  It's not good.  In fact, it's pretty grim.

Most of the newspapers have reported the story we took from Exaro yesterday about A4e being the preferred bidder for another contract, to run the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's helpline.  The Daily Mail takes the opportunity to re-run its previous graphics on A4e, but also quotes Margaret Hodge as saying: "This belies common sense.  There are so many question marks about this company’s competence and integrity that I can’t believe any government department is thinking of signing another contract with them.  The Home Office should hold off from making any decision until the investigations have been completed."

PS.  I read the latest Private Eye after posting the first paragraph above.  They have the story; but they also show that A4e used the FSI to help win the Work Programme contracts - the "bid candy" which the charities claim they became for the prime providers.  The Eye has also set its sights on another prime, Working Links, recalling a leaked "compliance visit" report last year which showed that Working Links in Liverpool had made 85 claims for outcomes which it was not entitled to. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Home Office lines up A4e for major new contract

That's the headline of a story broken by the Exaro site.  They say: "Ministers have made the firm [A4e] ......... the preferred bidder to take over the sensitive Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) helpline to advise people of their rights in discrimination cases."  A4e is preferred over the CAB, Vertex and Sitel.  It's a government decision to privatise the helpline, because it was costing £2.1m a year.  There will inevitably be staff lay-offs.  A4e is saying simply that nothing has been concluded yet.
What made A4e's bid so attractive, one wonders.  Perhaps there was the fact that they already run the Money Advice helpline.  Perhaps they were the cheapest.  But it was always going to happen.  Despite the calls for suspension of contracts and the ongoing audit of contracts (Wales, by the way, has already completed an audit and found nothing wrong), there is no legal way at the moment to deny A4e contracts just because they are A4e. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Why pick on A4e?

I was drawn into a very peculiar correspondence recently.  I'll spare you the details, but it was with someone who professed himself unable to understand why A4e was the target for special hostility.  It's no different from any of the other companies, he said, so why was there such a virulent internet campaign against it.  I tried, briefly, to explain, but he dismissed what I said and still wouldn't have it.
Perhaps you can help me out here.  I'll set out what I think, and you can agree or not.  Why A4e?
  1. When the wave of privatisation in employment-related areas got under way in the mid-2000s there was one big winner - A4e.   It got a huge slice of New Deal, plus Train to Gain and Business Link and more.  It's rivals couldn't understand why.  Even when questions were asked in Parliament, nothing stuck.  There was talk of friends in high places.
  2. A4e's reputation among its clients was poor.  Was it any worse than that of other companies?  My impression is that it was.  The 2006-2009 New Deal contracts were very badly designed, fuelling client resentment, but experiences with A4e sparked off more internet outrage than could be chance.
  3. The media did try to examine what was going on.  A Radio 5 Live programme was excellent, but nobody took any notice.  Channel 4's Benefit Busters should have rung alarm bells; but the only lasting effect of the two episodes featuring A4e was that a woman who had been a tutor with the company was catapulted to fame and fortune as the Fairy Jobmother, suddenly an international careers expert on such slender experience.  The unemployed began to feel even more insulted.  Other producers, who wanted to make the whistle-blower type of programme, found themselves thwarted by the fact that nothing was provable and the threat of legal action could always scare people off.
  4. The face (and voice and everything else) of A4e was its majority shareholder, Emma Harrison.  The cult of personality was unstoppable, and she became a media celebrity.  When it came to demonstrating her expertise in finding jobs for people, however, she was less than impressive.  When the BBC plumbed the depths of the genre with Famous, Rich and Jobless, Harrison walked away from the show leaving at least one unemployed man she had supposedly helped feeling used and abandoned.  Another programme (the title of which I forget because I couldn't bring myself to watch it) saw Harrison competing with someone else to get an apparently hopeless case into a job.  That she achieved this by ringing up one of her mates was another kick in the teeth for those desperate for work.
  5. More quietly, A4e was empire-building, getting into all areas of people's lives in some places; CLACs, which took advice services away from the CAB and the voluntary sector in some places; direct payments for social care; prison education; a privatised version of Pupil Referral Units.  They were in schools.  They were in more and more countries, with the aid of the British government.  And they came very close to owning and running a bank, having come to an arrangement with a South African bank and secured a £1m grant from a quango here.  That, happily, came to nothing.  But the sense of boundless ambition was very disquieting.
  6. When David Blunkett, who had been the Secretary of State on whose watch A4e had prospered, ceased to be a minister, he took a job with A4e.  Later, when Blunkett had ceased to be such an asset, a Conservative insider joined the payroll.  Of course, A4e is hardly unique in employing those who can oil the political wheels.  But it did seem especially blatant.
  7. Targets were never met.  Okay, A4e performed averagely; other contractors were usually just as poor.  But failure to perform adequately was never a reason for not giving them the next contract.  One can blame the procurement process for that.  But it added to the sense that the reality never matched the hype.
  8. And hype there certainly was, a constant stream of it.  And it intensified when Flexible New Deal forced providers into competing in each area.  A4e's unfortunately named Know Hope roadshow was a PR campaign to persuade unemployed people that the company was going to change their lives.  (Fortunately for all the providers, the competition element was postponed and the contracts were bought out by the coalition government.)  None of the other companies behaved in this way.  They didn't want publicity, apart from the odd good news piece in the local press.  For A4e, publicity was essential. 
  9. While all this was going on, there were reports of fraudulent activity, acknowledged but never publicised by the DWP.  While this was fairly minor stuff, it brought out more criticism of the company.  And it should have highlighted a major cause of such activity; the intense pressure on staff to make the money, whatever it took.  Bonuses or commission for getting job outcomes; prizes for success; it all encouraged corner-cutting if not downright fraud.
  10. Harrison boasted of her closeness to government.  While she probably made little impression on Blair, and none at all on Brown, she was able to persuade Cameron that she had the answer to all society's ills.  She was the solution to whatever had caused the 2011 riots.  She would rescue the horde of problem families and put them back to work.  It was hubris.  While other companies made millions for their shareholders and paid their executives very well, it was Emma Harrison's 85% share of an £11m dividend which brought A4e's huge profits into the spotlight.
Why pick on A4e?