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?


  1. Great article. One of your best! Couple more to add perhaps:

    11. A4e and Ms Harrison has always had their defenders. Anyone criticising them would be made well aware that it's THIER fault that they received an underwhelming service from A4e. It was their fault because A4e only helps those who want to be helped. Anyone criticising A4e would be called a "whinger" or be told they're jealous of Ms Harrison's wealth and success. I can vouch for this personally as I still have the personal correspondence between myself and Ms Harrison that makes this clear.

    12. A4e became almost the public face of the whole W2W sector . Whilst other big and minor players exist such as G4s, Serco, Ingeus, Reed and BEST, A4e was the best known due largely to its owner's shameless publicity seeking.

    " The media did try to examine what was going on." I'd say this was more true of BBC radio, The Guardian, Private Eye, Ch4 and various blogs and websites. Until recently, most TV channels and newspapers largely took a simplistic, one dimensional tabloid-like view of unemployment and jobseekers, using terms such as "workshy, lazy, scroungers, feckless" and so on.

    Benefit Busters SHOULD have been a massive wakeup call. However, some of the comments I saw on the program blamed the jobseekers for having to attend A4e in the first place.

  2. Why i personally dislike a4e, now these are my own feelings, when i first went to a4e i thought they would help me get me a placement, But as soon as i got there the first times, i had to explain to the placement officer, what i wanted, and yes he understood, then he left, and another placement officer, 7 times i spent telling them what i wanted, each placement officer lasted a week. This smacked of unprofessionalism, but thought ok.. lets carry on, they are just getting into the swing.. The staff constantly changed, there was about 2 or 3 that remained everyone else left.. Now during that first time, I saw a new member of staff bully and insult some other people, rather than trying to calm the situation down the aggression grew.. and i actually went to the deputy manager and told them look if something wasnt done those three people would have killed her.. Once again unprofessional.

    During the rest of my time there i saw bullying, nasty comments by staff about clients in other clients hearing.

    I tried to watch benefit busters, fairy jobsmother, but i ended up shouting at the screen, a lot of the screen time was staged you could tell it was, where i and my fellow ex a4ers experienced the true attitude.

    The cult of personality, True. in 2 or 3 rooms there was a large 2foot by 3 foot painting/photo of emma harrison staring down at everyone.

    She made herself and a4e larger than life and she is reaping what she has sowed

  3. All good points and well made and I can't disagree with any of them. Perhaps your antagonist wanted to know which particular aspect singled out A4E - is it the publicity-seeking or the over-reaching ambition with concomitant empty promises? Or the private ownership Or the hypocrisy of A4E? Or the fact that they keep getting contracts they don't appear qualified for? Because Sodexho, Serco and G4S are growing too but silently and without the noisy leaps into new business areas that A4E have made: and Carillion. Amey (Ferrovia), Mitie and Capita sneaking up behind...
    Surely the important point is that without proper due diligence during procurement and without rigorous contract monitoring of performance against targets, all outsourcing and PFI contracts will ultimately fail because the procurement panel can only base decisions on PR & bid capabilities. And A4E must be very good at those.

  4. I was forced onto A4E's books last September, even though I'd just finished a 'course' with a previous private firm. I had the indignity of being made to attend 'courses' that 'taught' me to write a CV, etc (I've been an editor for 32 years).

    I'm in the process of starting up a company, which A4E have had no part in whatever.

    I've no idea if you can guide me, but when my website's up and running, I want to make bloody sure that A4E don't get any credit for my coming off the dole queue. They did nothing whatever to help and do not deserve any financial gain for one less on the unemployment sheet.

    1. I'm not sure how the system works now. Under New Deal and FND, if you went self-employed it would be you who had to sign the outcome form, and therefore by not signing it you would have denied the provider the claim. Under the WP I don't know whether this is necessary. Perhaps someone can tell us.
      You make an excellent point about the one-size-fits-all which is still going on, despite the fact that the government said the WP would be all about tailor-made, individual support.

  5. I think you’ve nailed it (no flattery). With regard to Emma Harrison’s endless publicity-seeking and hubris, here are some of her reported remarks on ‘problem’ families, remarks which I considered both sanctimonious and patronising:

    1. Thanks for the link to ne tnewspaper article. In it, Emma Harrison claims that she raised enough money to pay for one of her schoolfriends to have an eye-operation. Emma Harrison is only 48 years old. In the days when she was a schoolgirl, the NHS would have provided any treatment that her schoolfriend needed, surely? Has this friend ever come forward to corroborate her story, I wonder, or is it just a fictional claim that was designed to impress David Blunkett?

      As I understand it, Emma Harrison scraped a poor pass in an engineering degree from a red-brick university. Has she understaken professional qualifications in psychiatry or psychology since then? Does she even have any qualifications for teaching adults, I wonder?

      If not, I would suggest that Ms Harrison uses some of the £8.6 million of Government money that she has received in order to go and get some proper qualifications that are relevant to the field in which she claims to be an "expert."

      I am a genuine, very highly qualified and very experienced expert in my own field. However, after a lengthy career break I now need to do at least one professional course and to re-register with my professional body. The total cost would be about £1,000 but I cannot raise the money and no Bank will make loans to a JSA claimant. With £8.6 million of Goverbment money in my own pocket, there is no limit to what I could do.

      The same is true of each and every one of A4E's other customers, so how about Ms Harrison donates the £8.6 million to a fund that would enable A4E's customers to do any propert training that they might need?


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