Friday, 28 September 2012

Margaret Hodge interview

I missed it, but Margaret Hodge was on The Daily Politics today talking about the PAC report.  You can watch it here.  She had to battle against poor interviewing, but she made her points.  There is "still a cloud hanging over A4e".  Providers are still claiming money for outcomes they had nothing to do with, jobs or self-employment already set up before referral.  The interviewer, Carole Walker, kept trying to push the line that this was in Labour's time, but Hodge insisted it was under the current contracts.  And, she said, "You don't pay a company if they have not done the work."
She was also exercised about the fact that no figures have been released.  How can we know how well A4e or anyone else is doing if, 15 months in, there is still a refusal by the DWP to tell us the stats?

That's the crux of it at the moment.  The documents leaked to Channel 4 News showed that, with the first year of the WP not yet completed, A4e's outcome figures were dire.  That first year is well and truly over now, but figures promised in the "Autumn" are still not out, and rumour has it that they won't be released until the end of November (which is winter on my calendar).  What are they hiding?

The PAC's report

The Public Accounts Committee has published its report into the Work Programme, and there's a lot of disapproval in it of the way the DWP fails to oversee and manage its contractors properly.  The Press Association has the basic press release.  In the case of A4e, they say, the DWP didn't obtain the 2009 internal audit report which showed alleged fraud and malpractice.  The subsequent enquiry into A4e resulted in one cancelled contract but did not address the wider question of whether A4e was a fit and proper company to have any such contracts.  If it hadn't been for whistle blowers, says committee chair Margaret Hodge, a range of issues would not have been addressed at all.

As we reported last night, the report does not include the evidence of those whistle blowers, who asked for it to be pulled at the last minute.  We don't know why, but we can guess.  The Independent publishes some of Eddie Hutchinson's evidence which was leaked after the committee meeting.  In another article on the report itself, the Independent reminds us that one of those whistle blowers "who had worked at A4e told how she had been asked to 'fix' files to suggest that people had successfully found work".  The DWP repeats the mantra that it all happened under Labour's programmes and couldn't happen now.  She also says the the enquiry into A4e is on-going.

The BBC news website has an unusually long piece.  It includes Hodge's concern that "The design of the programme still allows for the possibility of providers being paid for finding work for people who found the jobs on their own".  It also includes an attack by Iain Duncan Smith; he had asked senior Labour figures, including Hodge, "to reveal advice they received about fraud during their time in office".  Some hadn't even replied.  Like the Independent, the BBC reports, though briefly, Andrew Dutton's response.  They have strengthened their controls, etc., and "we are now openly calling on MPs, business leaders and employers to come and see for themselves the work we are doing".  Interestingly, the BBC uses as a graphic an old clip from A4e's website which still describes it as a "social purpose company".

For the whole of Dutton's response see the WallStreetonline site.  This begins with the central message that A4e wants to get across:  "A4e is a different company from the one it was two years ago".  Many of us are yet to be convinced.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The evidence won't be published

The Exaro site has just reported that the Public Accounts Committee won't be including the evidence from whistle-blowers when they publish the report into the welfare-to-work programme tomorrow.  You'll remember that the committee heard evidence from several whistle blowers in May.  One of them, Eddie Hutchinson, had his evidence leaked, and pretty damning it was.  But the PAC wanted to publish the rest of it and won't now because the people concerned have made last-minute requests to block it.  This was the evidence about A4e and Working Links.  It's a pity, but it shows the fear felt by people who go public in this industry.
We'll have a good look at the report when it comes out.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Quick plea

I'm putting out another plea for contacts for a specific purpose.  If you're a current or very recent employee of A4e, or are currently on the WP with A4e then I'd be grateful if you could send me a "not for publication" comment with your email address.  I will then explain before passing on that address (only with your permission).

Prison contract delays - and Oxford

There's a rather confusing piece in the Guardian today headlined "A4e prison contracts delayed by anti-fraud checks".  It's confusing because it's not news.  The contracts for prison education which were due to start in August were delayed for three months because the Skills Funding Agency wanted extra fraud checks, following all the accusations earlier this year.  The checks didn't find any fraud, and the new contracts will start on 1 November.

An interesting campaign has been going on in Oxfordshire, where David Cameron has his constituency.  The Oxford Mail teamed up with A4e on a "We want to work" campaign, trying to get 12 of their clients into work.  (The article which launched the campaign was written by one Emma Harrison, but presumably not that one.)  Another article on the same day listed the twelve and showcased two of them.  And yet another article is a straightforward advert for A4e.  We're told (ungrammatically) that "Last year, A4e helped 30,126 people into work in the UK, 10,695 people gain a qualification and worked with 13,523 employers."

The following day things became a little less clear.  There's advice on "gaining an edge" from a woman who runs a free job club in Oxford as well as advice on CVs from an A4e adviser.  By Friday local MPs are brought in to say how wonderful the campaign is, and two more jobseekers are showcased.  One has been through an A4e "All about care" course.  And by Saturday there is good news.  One of the 12, who hadn't yet been featured, has got a job.  Another has an interview with an employer who read his profile in the paper.  Another, not apparently one of the 12, has got a job after 6 months out of work.

I am truly delighted for all those who find work.  But something is worth thinking about.  An A4e business leader says, "We are hoping that this is just the start of employers contacting us."  This is a campaign by the local paper to publicise people on A4e's books, and it's that exposure which has had some success.  Nothing wrong with that.  But it will be A4e which gets the outcome payments.  There are other parts of the country where local councils have co-ordinated efforts with the local press and, possibly, WP providers, to find jobs for the unemployed.  Who gets the reward then?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Looking back

It's useful to remind ourselves sometimes of the wilder shores of A4e's ambitions.

There was the bank.  One wonders now how it ever got as far as it did, but A4e wanted to set up a bank for poor people.  They had an arrangement with a South African bank, Capitec, the exact nature of which we'll never now know, but it lead to the setting up by A4e of a company called Capitec UK.  A grant of £1 million was given by a Regional Development Agency to start this bank.  Then something happened.  Again, we'll probably never know what, but the whole project was dropped without the money being handed over. Capitec UK never traded and was dissolved early last year.  There's no chance now of A4e ever being allowed to run a bank, but who could ever have thought that it was a good idea?

And then there's "total place".  A4e had scooped up contracts for various outsourced public services, and had a vision of one grand contract covering a whole local authority area.  A single company would provide all the services, from welfare-to-work, to legal and financial advice, to pupil referral units to - you name it.  They put forward a version of this to government in 2010 when Local Enterprise Partnerships were invented.  (See this blog 25 September 2010.)  This idea seemed a whole lot more likely than the bank; but what has happened in practice is the grand contract which doesn't help A4e.  Some local authorities (Conservative controlled, naturally) have decided to outsource everything, handing over all their services to one company which then sub-contracts them out piecemeal.  The only companies in the running for such super-contracts are, as you would expect, the likes of Serco, Capita and IBM, with other big American companies wanting a piece of the action too.  A4e isn't big enough.  Which is a relief.

The setbacks of this year will not have dampened A4e's ambitions.  Why should they?  G4S made a complete mess of its Olympics contract, but it's caused barely a dent in their business.  There are frequent failures in outsourcing, but no slowing of its growth.  And that's because it has little or nothing to do with cost or efficiency.  It's down to what Private Eye calls the revolving door; the happy club of politicians, business people and civil servants who switch roles and create opportunities for money-making for each other.  It's a wealth creation scheme for the elite.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

It's called chutzpah

Or brazen cheek.  I suppose I should thank him for the plug, but I was startled to see this:

This followed another:

Mr Cooper told us that he was answering questions on @happytoansweranyqs but I can't find how to gather these together.

There's a politician who's taking a lot of abuse today because he's apologised for the wrong thing; not for breaking a pledge but for making it in the first place.  Mr Cooper is in danger of similarly misplaced contrition.  Saying that you're going to "learn from our critics" is easy, but meaningless unless it's acted on.  It's just PR.

The party conferences are coming up.  A4e, like lots of other companies, has always had a presence at these gatherings, lobbying the politicians.  I wonder if they will be there this year.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

You're too well off

My readers who are unemployed, or dependent on benefits for other reasons, must feel more than ever under attack at the moment.  First, the move to Universal Credit, the personal mission of Iain Duncan Smith, has so many flaws that even the civil servants seem to be worried about it.  But IDS greets all the criticism with his customary insouciance.  You can all apply online.  If you're one of the losers who doesn't have an internet connection (it doesn't cost anything, does it?) you can go to the library and do it in public.  And those who can't use the internet will just have to learn.  After all, they need to be able to do it to get a job.  And you'll have to learn to cope with getting your benefits monthly.  If you're so bad at budgeting that you can't, there'll be classes.  (Prepare the bid writers, A4e.)  If you begin to suspect that IDS and his kind live on another planet, you will be cheered by the vision of Lord Freud.  The Guardian reports fears of cyberfraud wrecking the IT system, but Freud suggested that "ultimately claimants might take advantage of the development of internet eye-glasses by Google - which allows users to surf the internet on the lens of a pair of glasses, using eye movements to navigate the web and make benefits claims."  You couldn't make it up.  It's clear that some people are going to be significantly worse off, but nobody wants to admit it.

Then one of those dubious surveys comes out which shows that a majority of people are in favour of welfare cuts.  The relentless propaganda of governments and the right wing press has done its work.  So we're told that the government plans to link benefit increases to wages rather than to CPI.  So much fairer.  (Cue lots of references by Tory ministers to "hard working families".)  Economists point out that it would be counter-productive.  But the next step is to float the idea of a two-year freeze on benefits before making the change.  The Guardian reports lots of quotes about "tough choices".  And it also carries the angry reaction of the Child Poverty Action Group.

Since the best time to kick people is when they're down, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are plans to outsource Jobcentre services.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Those employment figures

With no more responses from Jonty Olliff-Cooper, we can turn our attention to the latest employment figures, perhaps with a sense of deja vu.  The number of people unemployed fell a bit again.  This time there's been no careful analysis on Newsnight or the news; no critical report by Stephanie Flanders.  Presumably they didn't want another hysterical rant from Iain Duncan Smith.  The item on the BBC news website does report the ONS's verdict that "it's all down to women".  The number of men out of work has actually gone up.  And it does show the wide variations in unemployment around the country, and that it's actually going up in many areas.  Significantly for the Work Programme, it also reports that a record 1.42 million people are working part-time because they can't get full-time jobs.

Channel 4's Factcheck blog takes apart David Cameron's claim that the number of women in employment is up.  And Fullfact demolishes his boast that half a million private sector jobs have been created since the election.  It's also been shown that a lot of the "jobs" are accounted for by people going self-employed, often unwillingly.  And, of course, we don't know who they are, these people who are getting work.  They are probably not the long-term unemployed who would provide bumper payments to the WP providers.  If they are taking part-time jobs, they won't provide any outcome payments to the providers.  And since in many parts of the country, unemployment continues to rise, the outlook for the providers there is even bleaker.

I wonder whether there are negotiations going on to change the contracts.  Will all that part-time, casual or zero hours working be redefined as success?  I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Reply to Jonty Olliff-Cooper

This one is for Jonty Olliff-Cooper; a more considered response to your comment.  (See the last post).  
I was reminded of a comment I received back in September 2009, before your time.  I didn't publish it then, but when everything was going pearshaped for A4e in February this year, I did.  (See this post).  There was a whopping great lie at the heart of it, that they'd tried to communicate with me.  
Let's be honest, Mr Cooper, you didn't really expect me to bite and accept your offer.  There might have been a bit of a panic if I had!  The purpose of your comment was to get me to publish it, to show what a reasonable chap you are.  You made no attempt to answer the points I made; specifically your consistent failure to meet targets.  You ignored everything ever published, not just in this blog, but in so many other forums, and stuck to the line that if critics just understood and appreciated how wonderful A4e is, they would change their minds.  
When, on my original website, I published comments from A4e staff (which later turned out to be completely vindicated) your company got the site closed down as "defamatory".  I had no chance to communicate with you then.  I have a stack of similar comments, some of them very recent, which I haven't published because they threaten the anonymity of the writer.  You may have noticed that I don't allow comments which are critical of individual staff, or even of your staff in general, because I know that the vast majority are simply trying to do the best job that they can.  What about you?  What are your qualifications for working in the W2W industry, let alone being Director of Strategy and Policy?  (Silly question, I know.)  
A4e has a chance to put the difficulties of the past behind it and become just another outsourcing company.  That industry is in no danger of shrinking, and there are plenty of pickings to be had.  But you need to stop insisting on this line that A4e is something more noble than a business.  You need to drop the focus on PR and address the criticisms of clients.  You need to be a better employer.   
I commend you for answering the post, and you are welcome to join in the conversation.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A4e wants a debate

A4e, in the shape of its Director of Strategy and Policy, Jonty Olliff-Cooper, wants a debate - about the real issues, he says, not "semantics".  The piece he has written for the Guardian's Social Enterprise Network site is in response to the ASA's ruling that the company can't call itself a "social purpose company".  It's a lengthy piece, so I want to take time to answer it.

First, let's clear away another bit of "semantics".  He refers several times to their "customers".  This is inaccurate and thoroughly misleading.  As with all such contractors, the customer is the body buying the service, whether that is central government or a local council.  Ultimately, of course, that means the tax-payer.

And then, a bit of background on Mr Olliff-Cooper.  I can't do better than the Daily Mail back in February  which showed his "top-drawer Conservative Party contacts".  

So, to engage with what he says.  He believes that there is "fuzziness" in our thinking now.  The previous clear distinctions between public sector, private sector and charities no longer apply, because lots of other types of organisations have grown up in the gaps.  He refers, not very wittily, to the "blurred sector".  This is manifestly true.  A great many charities now exist solely on government contracts, often doing things vastly different from what they were set up to do.  They still, however, have to plough profits back into the work of the organisation.  We now have "social enterprises", which can take many forms (Wikipedia has a good article on this) but which are defined by not offering any benefit to their investors.  Cooper wants to say that A4e fits neatly into the mix because it "attempts to tackle poverty not through corporate social responsibility but through its core business".  He insists that they combine profit and social values and that "A4e's success has been good for our customers, good for taxpayers and good for the economy".

And that's where his argument starts to fall apart.  A4e has undoubtedly been good for large numbers of individual clients.  But it has failed many more.  And it has certainly not been good for taxpayers, having consistently failed to meet its targets whilst sucking up so much profit that it could pay out £11m in dividends last year.  Any company can call itself a "social purpose company" and few would deny that they have "social values" (even those whose businesses are clearly anti-social).  A long cooment under the article is by someone claiming to run a "profit-for-purpose" company.  It's meaningless.  And there is now, perhaps more than ever, a need to recognise that if government or councils choose to contract with private companies, this is a business arrangement.  The company is paid to deliver a service.  No amount of pretentious waffle should obscure that.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


Chris Grayling has performed so well at the DWP that he has been promoted to the Cabinet as Justice Minister.  There is no word yet as to who replaces him.  Iain Duncan Smith was apparently offered the job but wanted to stay put.  So we expect no change.

No change to the Universal Credit policy, despite criticism from several sources.  The Chartered Institute of Taxation is concerned about it being "wholly impractical" for the self-employed, who will have to report their transactions every month, within 7 days of the month end.  The Federation of Small Businesses agrees.  Gingerbread, which campaigns for single-parent families, is even more worried.  They reckon that more than a million such families will lose out.  Read their findings here.

Some change (for the worse) for those who have been shifted onto ESA work-related-activity.  They will now lose up to £71 a week if they don't comply with the instructions of their "advisers".  The Guardian has an excellent article on this.    The Telegraph, however, chooses to headline its own account as "Fines for workshy sickness benefits claimants to double."

No change to the government pretending that millions forced into part-time work because they can't get full-time is a good thing.  The Express has a good article on this, which ends with a typical Grayling "everything is wonderful" quote.

But there is change - dangerous change - in the numbers of people having to depend on food banks.  There's an excellent, detailed article by Paul Mason on the BBC's website.  It shows that 43% of the people needing to turn to these food banks are there because of benefit "sanctions" or the refusal of a crisis loan; and there's a graph showing how these sanctions have spiked.

Another of those MPs who have been invited into A4e's offices has blogged about how impressed he was (scroll down the page).  He's Conservative Guto Bebb, MP for Aberconwy.  He's another who thinks that self-employment is great.  But he complains about the Welsh government (Labour, I believe) supposedly creating initiatives which are damaging the Work Programme.  Or so A4e says.  Does anyone know anything about this?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

PR or results?

A4e has been on a PR offensive, described on its website.  They have invited local MPs into their offices to show them "the real work that goes on behind the headlines".  Six have so far taken up the offer.  Niki Freeman, who is described as Local Business Leader for A4e, is quoted as saying: "Some of the comments that have been made against A4e have been incredibly frustrating and hurtful for my staff and the many partners we work with, who, day in, day out, have simply been doing their jobs."  I sympathise with that.  But the piece goes on: "Over the last year, A4e has been working hard to establish an excellent team of professional staff with a range of specialist skills to support individuals across the UK. The Work Programme’s ‘black box’ approach gives service providers the freedom to create innovative ways of working, allowing A4e to tailor its service to individuals."  This is where many clients would take issue with the company.  The reactions of three of the MPs are quoted.  Two of them, Helen Wheeler of South Derbyshire and John Stevenson of Carlisle, are Conservatives and effusive.  The third, Labour's Vernon Coaker, is more guarded.  But no doubt all of them were happy to be quoted.

It makes sense to get MPs on side.  But on the Work Programme A4e, like all the other providers, will be judged on results.  After the leaked document showing very poor results, and Private Eye's publication of the letter showing that Working Links is in the same position, the Telegraph now has an email to Ingeus staff from its director Jack Sawyer.  He says that the firm is not meeting its "contractual minimums" and its performance is not good enough.  Chris Grayling's reaction is simple.  It's all getting better and anyway, "any providers which were failing to deliver could see more unemployed people referred to other welfare to work companies under the programme."  He doesn't say what will happen if they're all doing equally badly.