Monday, 30 July 2012

Who benefits?

The focus is on sickness and disability benefits today, as Channel 4 and the BBC both screen programmes on the assessment system (Channel 4 at 8.00 and Panorama on BBC at 8.30).  Panorama has questioned the "government appointed adviser on testing welfare claimants", Prof Malcolm Harrington.  According to a preview in the Telegraph, the professor admits that there are flaws in the system.  The programme highlights a particular case, a man who suffered from heart failure and "died 39 days after being declared fit for work". However, the familiar loathing of anyone on benefits is on show in a particularly nasty way in the Express this morning.  "New war on sick benefits" it shrieks.  The language in this article would make a fine case study in right-wing propaganda.  Note the verbs.  Taxpayers "shelled out"; families are "mired" in dependency; claimants are "raking in" money.  And the statistics are absurd.  But they have a quote from the disgusting Taxpayers' Alliance, so that must validate it.

No doubt they would approve of the plan which is about to be rolled out across the country, according to the Guardian; to make people who have been unemployed for 3 years do "community work" for 6 months. The paper has the views of the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, which says that it could result in 1.06 million people being forced onto the scheme because the Work Programme will not work.  The article also says that the decision in the Jamie Wilson case is expected before 10 August.  He's the chap who took the DWP to court along with Cait Reilly.

The Guardian also has revelations about how donors to the Tory party are making millions from welfare companies.  A firm called Sovereign Capital owns ESG which has £73m worth of government contracts, including for the WP in the Midlands.  The article details all the donations and connections.  There's a rather half-hearted quote from Labour's Liam Byrne.  He's in a difficult position, of course.  David Blunkett and A4e?

Sunday, 29 July 2012

More lies, and questions

It's hard to know whether Chris Grayling is deliberately making it up or just doesn't understand.  An article in the Telegraph yesterday showed the depths to which ministers, in collaboration with a Tory press, can sink when it comes to welfare reform.  The headline is "Half of recipients of sickness benefit return to work if ruled fit".  But the first sentence says that more than half "go off benefits".  Hardly the same thing.  The appalling quality of the journalism in this piece is shown by the sentence, "More than 2 billion people who previously claimed Incapacity Benefit are gradually being assessed ....."  Okay, maybe that's a typo on the website.  But don't they have proof-readers?

What the report in question actually claims to show is that 52% of those assessed as able to work don't claim another benefit straight away.  10% went back to their old jobs; 18% found new work or worked for themselves.  "Others retired or were supported by their families."  Which is not quite the same as the headline, is it?  The comments under the article are well worth reading for the intelligent analysis of this rubbish.  But it's the lies and the spin which last.  Half of those on IB should be working.

And another piece has popped up on the Telegraph's website.  Apparently Grayling has been "forced to tighten the rules ..... to get more people off benefits and back into work".  He says that he will "redesign the scheme so that those deemed originally too ill to join it would be made to do so".  It's because WP providers are "crying out" for more hard-to-help claimants, and yet only 40,000 people on ESA have been pushed onto the programme.  Well, of course WP profits depend on these "hard to help" people.  Incredible.

One of the least reported contracts which pays A4e and the like is the Jobcentre Plus Support contract (JCPSC).  Helpfully, A4e has published a piece on their website to supposedly explain what they do, in the 33 London boroughs where they are the prime contractors.  But the only description is "provides employment training for people who have signed on at Jobcentre Plus and need further support in terms of improving their job searches and getting ready for working".  All right, we understand what that means.  But this is work which should, and could, be done by the Jobcentres.  Contracting it out was a purely ideological move, handing work for profit to the private sector.  While there's no talk at the moment of privatising the Jobcentres altogether, I wonder whether this would have been done by now if the climate had been different.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

News and not news

I am always delighted to see Private Eye keeping on the case, so I approve of the piece in the latest issue.  They say that "A4e has found a new way to make money from the government's struggling Work Programme: claim bonuses for people who already have jobs."  Let's be clear, it has always been the case, from the old New Deal onwards, that providers could claim job outcomes when people already had an interview lined up before starting the programme.  It wasn't uncommon for someone to turn up on Monday saying that they had an interview later that day.  Great, the provider would say, just sign this form and phone us to let us know how you got on.  As long as the form was signed, the client had started the programme, and the outcome could be claimed.  If the client got a job before starting the programme, then they signed off.  What the Private Eye item claims is that A4e (and, presumably, other providers) are getting people onto the WP when they already have a job lined up but haven't yet started it.  That allows A4e to claim the attachment fee and the outcome payment.  The DWP thinks that's fine, as long as the client hasn't already started work.  But why would anyone want to attach themselves to A4e if they have a job in the pipeline?  Well, the Public Accounts Committee was given evidence that the company was offering £50 vouchers to the clients.  A4e denied this; and indeed, it may well be that the £50 was just the standard "bonus" offered to clients to help get the outcome form signed.  They're not denying, however, that they offer sums to cover clothing, travel expenses etc.  So it seems worthwhile to the client; and is hugely worthwhile to A4e.

You may remember the bizarre situation of the Cabinet Office giving a contract to A4e to "explore the application of payment by results and social finance to troubled families."  Who better to offer dispassionate advice on the subject?  Well, they've now come up with their report.  I wonder if anyone is still interested.

Just a word to people who want to leave comments.  I've been getting a spate of comments which I can't publish because they name particular offices and even people.  Edit those out, please.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Narrowing choice

A couple of things came together yesterday to set me thinking about how the Work Programme is impacting on people's basic freedoms.

The first came in an email from a contact.  He is not with A4e, and I won't mention the provider.  He has come up against the generic CV, imposed on him by his "adviser".  Given his qualifications and experience the client is far better qualified to design a document than this employee, but the company has given out a template and has to stick to it.  The client is afraid that it will damage his prospects of getting a job.  Of course, when he sends out applications off his own bat he can enclose his own CV.  But the problem now is that the companies appear to be sending out CVs to employers without the knowledge or consent of the clients.  And we know that these generic CVs end up in the bin.

That leads me to an article I found on the People Management website.  It starts by saying that it's too early to judge the success of the Work Programme.  But it goes on to describe what it sees as a success story.  The provider is Ingeus.  They have a contract with TNT Post, which has taken on 90 staff through the WP.  The TNT chap says, "We've found that they have developed a work ethic because they have attended the welfare-to-work courses to get them to a job-ready state.”  Think about what that implies.  They didn't have a "work ethic" before.  It gets worse.  "Development continues once they are in post because the Ingeus 'work adviser' – who sits within TNT’s recruitment team – maintains the personal relationship. 'She supports each person throughout their training and continues to have one-to-ones with them once they have got the job. It’s like a life-coaching service for that person.'" 

What could possibly be wrong with that?  People who didn't have a job now have one.  The company which will make money by keeping them in work is on hand to support them.  So why am I uneasy?  Ingeus isn't the only company to have contracts of this kind with employers.  So it depends which provider you're sent to what job opportunities you'll get.  And the amount of control you can exercise over your life shrinks inexorably.  You would be right to feel that you're just a commodity, to be bought and sold.

Friday, 20 July 2012


Two bits of news which could, loosely, come under the heading of openness.

The Guardian reports more "chaos" around an outsourcing company which could have a bearing on the behaviour of companies like A4e.  The story is about Atos and its fitness-for-work tests.  I hadn't realised that last year claimants were given the right to record their assessments so that they could ensure that their details were correctly registered.  Thinking to save on the costs of all those appeals, the government told Atos to equip themselves with recorders.  The firm has complied by buying just 11 (that's eleven).  And most of those are broken.  Chris Grayling thinks that's okay.  However, if it's officially permitted (if very difficult) to record Atos assessments, maybe that opens the door to recording encounters with other companies which can have a very damaging impact on clients' lives.

The Exaro site reports that the Public Accounts Committee is demanding greater openness in outsourced public services contracts.  They want "all data" disclosing, and for the companies (and charities) to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  At the moment all the stuff we should know is covered by "commercial confidentiality".  The PAC's Chair, Margaret Hodge, cites the current G4S fiasco, and the fact that we don't know what penalty clauses were in the contract.  While some MPs and civil servants like the idea, I'm doubtful whether this will get anywhere.  There are simply too many vested interests.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Unemployment and privatisation

The unemployment figures which came out yesterday weren't over-hyped, even by the government.  For an excellent analysis of what they mean, read Mark Easton on the BBC news site.  Long-term unemployment is rising inexorably, which shows that the Work Programme isn't doing what it was supposed to do.  But no one is really asking why.

The G4S fiasco has opened up a debate about the whole privatisation project.  We're still not entirely clear what went wrong, but it was a disaster waiting to happen.  It must be galling for A4e that the company is routinely linked with G4S as an example of the dangers of outsourcing.  But will the lessons be learned?  There's a very thoughtful piece in the New Statesman by Rick Muir, and another in the Guardian by Seamus Milne.  Here are my observations, for what they're worth.

One of my earliest concerns when I started examining A4e was how quickly one company could drive out the competition.  The bigger the contract, the more likely this is to happen.  And when everything is privatised, where do you go when things go wrong?  When the public sector no longer exists, you can't take a service back in-house.  Olympic security now depends on the army and the police.  But my pension is now run by Capita.  What happens if they screw up?  Serco runs an out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall which has become so poor that they've been ordered to improve it.  What happens if they can't?  Three companies - Serco, G4S and Capita - now run vast  numbers of services in this country.  You and I have no control over them.  It is no longer a case of deciding that private profit is a better motivator than public service.  The politicians decided that long ago.  It's no coincidence that many of the politicians have connections with these companies.  Perhaps it takes a huge mess like that which G4S has put us in to focus minds.

Your thoughts, please.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Contracts and figures

News that A4e didn't win a contract, but it raises more concerns about the whole privatisation project.  There has been talk for some time of privatising the Probation Service, but one of the first steps comes in London, where a contract has been awarded for supervising people doing community service as a punishment.  The contract went to Serco - one of the three huge companies (with G4S and Capita) which run more and more of our public services.  The two failed bidders were Sodexo and A4e.  All three companies teamed up with a Probation Trust or something similar to tender for the work.  In A4e's case the partner was Mitie.  I hadn't heard of them, but a bit of googling reveals that Mitie and A4e joined forces in January 2011 to form what they called com:pact specifically to bid for community payback contracts.  They already run the MITIE Enterprise Centre, doing skills training at Hollesley Bay Prison and YOI in Suffolk.  So it looks like the Probation Service is being privatised bit by bit, and A4e will get its share of the cake.

A few snippets of news.  The first, in the Telegraph, tells us that the numbers of paupers' funerals are increasing as more applications for funeral grants are being turned down.  The grant only covers less than half the cost of a funeral, but with more impoverished people claiming it and being turned down councils are having to bury more people at their own cost.  The poor are stripped of their dignity even in death.

Then there's Iain Duncan Smith's proud boast that the benefits cap is already "encouraging" people into work.  There's a straightforward account in the Independent.  Note the wonderfully round numbers.  Of the people who would be affected by the cap, 1,700 have found work and 5,000 have "indicated they would like to receive support to get back into employment".  The cap hasn't yet come into force, yet IDS would have us believe that the prospect is already persuading loads of people to get a job (and, of course, there are lots of jobs available).  Channel 4 News' Factcheck blog was sceptical.  They ascertained that 58,000 people were told in may that their benefits would be capped at £26,000 a year.  The Jobcentres have tracked those and report that just under 3% of them have gone into work and another 9% have asked for help to get work.  But as Factcheck points out, there is nothing to prove that one follows from the other.  There are no figures for the numbers who would have got work anyway.  So IDS is making it up - again.

A third piece of news which has been mangled by the right-wing press for their own purposes is a suggestion that the Human Rights Act should cover "socio-economic rights".  Here's the Daily Mail's interpretation; the Express used the word "spongers" in its headline.  What it boils down to is that there would be a guaranteed minimum income.  That's hardly new.  It used to be called the "personal allowance", and it was what you got as "income support" if you had no other income.  It didn't include things like housing benefit.  Governments eroded that and eventually ditched it.  It started with changing emergency grants into loans.  Then asylum seekers got less than everyone else.  And now the concept has been abandoned altogether.  There is a real debate to be had on these proposals.  But don't hold your breath.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Going under

News has emerged that a sub-contractor of A4e has gone out of business, unable to keep going under the Work Programme.  The Guardian has the story of the demise of Eco Actif, a social enterprise in the chain of providers under A4e.  The boss of the company, Amanda Palmer-Roye, was a political supporter of the government, but found that the payment system for the WP was impossible to live with; the firm couldn't get finance from the banks, which regard the WP as too "high-risk" and, she said, "its association with A4e had been a matter of great concern to potential investors".  Eco Actif had other contracts; a specialist programme subcontracting to A4e, G4S and CDG for support to ex-offenders, which had not come up with a single referral; and one of those European Social Fund contracts for workless families.  But now they've gone into liquidation.  All this is of interest in the light of the Merlin assessment for A4e.  This is the DWP's arrangement for monitoring how the primes are treating their sub-contractors, and A4e had their inspection recently.  They scored an overall 70%.

All the optimism from Grayling about the Work Programme seems curious in light of new estimates for the number of people being put on it.  As the This is Money website puts it, "More than half a million potential recruits seem to have disappeared" from the scheme.  For Labour, this is an opportunity to shout about "chaos", and warn that jobs would be lost in the W2W industry.  It's very hard to give any credibility to Liam Byrne on this, when the WP is just an extension of Labour's own programmes.  But the ERSA, the trade body for the industry, is also very annoyed about the staffing difficulties that the wrong estimates create.

The G4S fiasco - the wrong questions

Apart from a bit of confusion on the various forums between G4s and A4e, the outsourcing companies must be relieved that it's G4S that's taking all the flak at the moment.  In all the outrage, however, the right questions are not being asked.

  1. Why was the security contract given to one company, rather than split between the different Olympic sites?
  2. How many companies bid for this contract?  There are very few which would be in a position to bid, and that's a perennial problem in outsourcing.  You create private monopolies.
  3. Why was the contract given to a company with a poor track record?  That one is being asked.  Apparently G4S mucked up the security at least year's Wimbledon.  But the answer is one we know from W2W.  The procurement process doesn't take a company's past record into account.
  4. Did G4S subcontract, or have arrangements with other companies, to supply or train the workers?
  5. Were they deliberately leaving things to the last minute so that people they trained didn't go off and get a job with someone else?
Most of those questions won't be answered this week.  And Labour's outrage is necessarily limited by the fact that the contracts were given out under their administration.  But it matters very much in the creeping advance of privatisation.  Take the IT system for Universal Credit.  The Telegraph reports that the project is in danger because the IT isn't ready.  The DWP and HMRC are squabbling about whose responsibility this is, but behind it will be private contractors.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Where is the anger?

That's the question asked by John Harris in a Guardian article last week.  He is provoked by the story we reported on that the W2W providers are demanding more and more "sanctions" - wanting to stop the incomes of clients.  It's a long and eloquent piece, and he can't understand why people are not more angry about what's happening.
It's not a difficult question to answer.  We could start with a story which appeared in the Express last week: "One Scot in 10 would rather skive than get a job".  It's a story designed to misinform.  It even quotes the odious Taxpayers' Alliance.  But the point is that it feeds the belief, in people who know no better, that the welfare system allows the idle to live in comfort on the back of the industrious.  Once this would have been seen as far-right propaganda.  Now, people have been persuaded that it's true.  They see their own insecurity not as the fault of the elites who have messed up the economies of the world in their own greed; they blame the people who are even lower down the ladder than they are.
Many of us know people who believe that there are vast numbers of "scroungers", living comfortably on benefits with no intention of working.  They will tell you about families that have all the luxuries you could desire and don't want a job.  There is just enough truth in the fiction to turn it into a generality.  Never mind that all such families are up to their eyes in debt, or criminally inclined.  It's no use telling them that many thousands are desperate for work.  How many read such reports as this one in the Yorkshire Post: "Hull: City where 18 people chase every job vacancy".  They don't believe it.  Write about food charities and they don't believe it.
So cut welfare.  The only people who will suffer don't matter.  The reason that the government is reluctant to cut benefits for the elderly is that the elderly have an annoying habit of voting.  As for the poorest, most of them don't vote, and the calculation is that more people will approve of "cracking down" on scroungers than will have sympathy with the sob stories.  

G4S are getting a mauling in the press today.  But rely on the BBC and you'd never know that the company has W2W contracts.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Reaction to the figures

There hasn't been much reaction to to those figures released yesterday.  The Guardian has a long piece which airs the arguments about what the figures mean.  They put to Grayling the point that the companies had "creamed off" the easiest groups, but he says they didn't.  A couple of industry websites summarise the press release, which is what the government obviously wanted - a bald heading that 25% were off benefits after 36 weeks.

Channel 4 News' Factcheck blog does a reasonable job of analysis.  They point out that the non-intervention rate (the numbers who would get work anyway) was supposed to be 28%, so a current figure of 24% is hardly brilliant.  And, as they say, it's not even a figure for those who've found work, because people sign off for a variety of reasons.  They point to ONS figures that show that in the last 3 months only 46% of those who left JSA actually went into work.  

The political left naturally chooses to focus on the fact that the number of people out of work for two years has more than doubled under the current government.  Left Foot Forward uses this to show that the WP is failing.

No one, apparently, can remember as far back as privatised New Deal (2006 - 2009), where the providers promised 50% job outcomes and delivered around 24%.  Strange coincidence.  But the WP was supposed to give the providers the ultimate incentive - payment by results.  It's not working, is it?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Work Programme figures

The DWP has published figures intended to show how well the WP is doing.  You can find the release here.

The Independent has picked it up as "Chris Grayling hails employment programme".  It says that the figures show that "around one in four of those who joined the Work Programme a year ago had stayed off benefits for at least three successive months.  The signs were that the figure could have risen to 30%, which means the multi-billion pound scheme was 'on track' to deliver the help ministers had hoped for."

Look at the figures for yourself.  We're told that "Of those who left benefits most quickly - in the first 10 weeks - 7 out of 10 were still off benefits 13 weeks later."  No surprise there.  They were the ones who would have got work anyway.
It's being spun as 25% getting long-term work.  It doesn't mean that.  Of the 26,800 sample size, people will have signed off for a variety of reasons, including death, emigration and marriage.
There is no breakdown by region or by provider.  And how does this square with the leaked A4e performance figures which showed little more than a tenth of these figures?

PS:  In answer to some of the comments below, I've been given the following information:

  1. The Office for National Statistics say that 46% moved into jobs of more than 16 hours a week.  That suggests that there's rather more sharing of information going on than some people would like.
  2. The DWP says "categorically" that the numbers signing off do NOT include those who were sanctioned.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Bits and pieces

Leaked figures are quickly forgotten as the media follow banking scandals.  And the government maintains the line that the Work Programme will solve everything.  ITV reported various groups which are concerned about growing levels of child poverty and even hunger.  A government spokesman responded by talking about universal credit and said that: "Work is the best route out of poverty which is why the Work Programme will ensure that people will receive the personalised support they need."  How comforting.

Other papers have carried stories about poverty.  Patrick Butler in the Guardian reports plans to replace crisis loans with vouchers for Tesco or Sainsbury's.  These could be limited to stop them being used for alcohol or tobacco.  People who need to replace essential items like fridges will get chits redeemable only in accredited recycling stores.  The Telegraph reports a speech by the chief operating officer at the DWP, Terry Moran.  He would like to see photos of benefit cheats pinned to lamp posts, to name and shame them.  He admitted that it wasn't likely to happen.

The Yorkshire Post has a story headed "Echoes of the 1930s".  It's about Michael Hall, a 26-year-old from Leeds who stands at a road junction holding up a placard saying, "I'm looking for work."  He worked up until 12 months ago, but has now had to move back in with his parents and lives on £60 pw JSA.  This should be required reading for everyone at the DWP.  But perhaps he's due to go on the WP and receive "personalised support".  

There's some good news, again in the Guardian.  The big five bus companies are planning a scheme to offer free or heavily discounted travel to NEETs.  We know how important this could be to young people trying to find work; but sadly many of the people commenting on the article don't.

One more story, on A4e's own website.  Three middle-aged men in Liverpool found work through a sub-contractor of A4e, Liverpool in Work, which is run by Liverpool City Council.  Now, this is excellent news for the men concerned.  For A4e it serves the two-fold purpose of reflecting well on A4e and showing the good relationship they have with their "partners".  For the rest of us it begs the question, why are companies like A4e involved at all, taking their cut from the activities of sub-contractors?  Some councils are carrying on their schemes alongside the WP, funding them themselves.  Others have chosen to become sub-contractors of the primes.  It would make much more sense to cut the primes out of the picture and put the money into local schemes.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Give them more money

You may remember that when Channel 4 News revealed A4e's current performance figures last Thursday, they rolled out Ian Mulheirn to say what he thought of them.  It didn't matter at the time who Ian Mulheirn is, but he pops up again today in the Guardian to give his take on what's wrong with the Work Programme.  It's a bizarre analysis, which concludes that providers should get more money and have less expected of them.  So who is this man who gets a newspaper article to air his views?

Mulheirn runs something called the Social Market Foundation - a think tank.  It proclaims itself to be "a leading cross-party think tank, developing innovative ideas across a broad range of economic and social policy.  We champion policy ideas which marry markets with social justice and take a pro-market rather than free-market approach. Our work is characterised by the belief that governments have an important role to play in correcting market failures and setting the framework within which markets can operate in a way that benefits individuals and society as a whole."  Which sounds nice and cuddly.  But with think tanks one should always follow the money.  Where does their funding come from?  They show it on their website.  The money comes from a variety of sources, but nearly half of it comes from private business, including Avanta and G4S.  

Mulheirn believes that the reason for the apparent failure of the WP is the state of the economy. The minimum performance targets are based on forecasts of growth done in 2010, but these have proved way too optimistic.  The providers can't control the labour market.  The solution, then, is to:
i) "tone down the proportion of payments made for achieving job outcomes. In the depths of recession, the priority must be to make sure jobseekers get the help they need. For that they need the money to provide it."
ii) "Second, it (the government) should reassess its expectations of what's achievable in a recession, and formally link minimum performance levels to the latest OBR forecast."  And
iii)  "the government should look at re-engineering the Work Programme so that a large proportion of the payment to providers is based on their performance compared with those of other providers, rather than judging them on inflexible targets and crucifying them when the economy falters."

 Mulheirn seems to want a return to something like the on-programme payments of privatised New Deal and FND.  That certainly created big profits for the companies but the outcomes were half what they forecast.  The money did not go into providing the support or skills training that clients needed.  There is no reason to suppose that it would be any different this time.  And how would revising down the performance targets help?  If the current 5.5% minimum was reduced to, say, 3.5% what is the point of the Work Programme at all?  You are just shovelling money into private companies which could be used to create real jobs.  As for comparing providers' performance with each other rather than with an objective standard; they have always performed similarly badly.  They would go on comfortably doing so.

The comments which follow the Guardian article are mostly very sensible.  What a pity that we can't engage Mulheirn in real debate.