Monday, 29 October 2012

Emma again - and rewriting history

If Wednesday night's interview on Channel 4 News was a disaster for A4e owner Emma Harrison, she hasn't given up.  Yesterday she appeared in a filmed interview for the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire edition of the Sunday Politics on BBC TV.  You can find it here, 36 mins and 30 secs in.  The introduction managed to get the facts wrong.  She was said to have resigned after criticism of her success rate.  That was only part of it, of course.  It was the publicity about fraud which exercises Harrison.  "The newspaper headlines were so wrong and so inflammatory," she said.  The accusations were "proved not to be true".  Hang on.  There were instances of fraud by A4e staff, just as there were by staff of other w2w companies.  Their own 2009 internal report showed probable fraud.  And the Slough case goes back to court this Wednesday.  But if Harrison says something often enough it must be true.  She says that it took a lot of nerve to stand up to the bullies.  A brief clip of John Healey MP shows him referring to "huge personal payment" for Harrison, but that wasn't put to her.  Apropos the leaked numbers, we did learn something interesting.  She said they "aren't meaningful" because there's now 18 months worth of data.  Does this mean, as we suspected, that the long delay in publishing the figures was so that the DWP could put out 18 months worth rather than 12, because it's got a bit better?  The interview was heavily edited.  Back in the studio, there was a brief discussion between two MPs.  The Conservative, Craig Whittaker, stuck to the line that payment by results is the best model because if the companies don't succeed they don't get paid.  He doesn't appear to have considered what happens to the clients.  The Labour MP Fabian Hamilton said that he didn't like PBR when his own government introduced it, and thinks the fact that the owner of a company can take £8m out of it shows it isn't working.  He would like to see civil servants trained to do the job.
Whether this last few days has been part of a determined effort at a come-back by Emma Harrison is hard to tell.  I suspect the company would rather it wasn't.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

It "needs throwing out"

Channel 4 News tonight followed up it's piece on A4e and interview with Emma Harrison last night with an interview with Anna Burke, former head of Eco-Actif.  This was a social enterprise which was a sub-contractor of A4e until it went out of business.  Ms Burke was shown the figures which Harrison claimed were wrong, and she agreed that they looked accurate and were "highly typical".  She said that clients were divided into red, green and amber; the red ones being those who were shelved as being too hard to help.

Krishnan Guru-Murty said that a number of A4e clients had contacted the programme, and they showed a few of the comments, which were very critical.  They then replayed Harrison's "very improbable statement" description of a similar comment made on last night's programme.  Ms Burke referred to the "bullying" contention of Harrison, and said that the reputation throughout the Work Programme was that it was the clients who were being bullied.  It "needs throwing out," she said.

I don't think this story is going to go away.


She was "bullied out of A4e".  That's the headline phrase in the Press Association piece on last night's Emma Harrison interview, and it's been taken up by many of the reports.  Harrison is a savvy enough media operator to know that if she used the word enough it would become the story.  But bullied by whom?  Did she say "political types"?  Does that mean the members of the Public Accounts Committee who objected to her £8.6m dividend?  Or were there people in government who told her to go?  I don't know, and don't particularly care.  To respond to questions on the failure of her company to fulfil its contract by claiming to have been bullied was only one bizarre aspect of this interview.  Of course, if her children were bullied after the revelations, that's regrettable.  And it was sad that innocent employees were caught up in it.  But most people would have struggled to work up any sympathy for Harrison herself.
Much else was odd.  She kept insisting that the figures Channel 4 had (from a "reliable source", said Jackie Long) were wrong, but said she didn't know what the right figures were.  If she'd said, correctly, that they were not allowed to disclose the true figures; or if she'd fudged it, as the company did; then that might have been the end of it.  But she went from saying that the figures were wrong to accusing the interviewer of bullying her and from there to saying that the programme was making up stories about her for political reasons.
Guru-Murthy kept bringing it back to the facts, but Harrison responded by virtually calling one of the clients a liar.  She had invested "£50m of her own money" in the Work Programme.  Jaws dropped at that point.  The design of the WP meant that providers had to be able to finance it before they got any money back.  Whatever bank account A4e's finance came out of, it is difficult to see it as Harrison's own money.  But that was the tone of her responses from then on.  She hadn't expected the interview to be so unsympathetic, it seems, and was angry.  The Work Programme was the most successful they'd ever run.  And she herself had helped tens of thousands into work.  People came up to her in the street to thank her.  She had just been "useful to have a go at".
This was about the failure of the Work Programme, and it could be thought that it became about Emma Harrison instead.  It was her name that was trending on Twitter late last night, and people were calling it a "car crash" for her.  Now we have to wait for the official figures.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

She was bullied and the figures are wrong - Emma on Channel 4 News

There has just been an astonishing interview with Emma Harrison on Channel 4 News.  There's an account of the facts on which it's based here.  It revolved around leaked performance data for the first year of the Work Programme - you can read the analysis on the Factcheck blog - which show that out of 93,127 attachments (new clients) there were only 3,400 outcomes.  Just 4%.  For that they've got £46m in fees.  The government's minimum target is 5.5%.  There was a brief explanation of who Emma Harrison is.  Then we heard from two clients.  Roland said it had taken 8 months for him to get even basic training; his sessions with A4e lasted 15 minutes and he was simply made to apply, under threat of sanctions, for jobs he knew he had no hope of getting.  Gill, a former solicitor with a 20-year career break, said that A4e were not interested in anything she said and didn't have the skills to enable them to tailor support.
A former senior manager with A4e, with his identity hidden, said that staff had "unmanageable caseloads" and were having to focus on their "top 10 targets".  He also said that customers often found their own jobs but A4e could claim for them if they showed some input, so might pay bus fares for the first week.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy revealed that in addition to the £8.6m dividend that Harrison took last year, she took a further £250,000 before stepping down.  What, he asked her, did she have to say to those customers?  The interview became an odd exchange.  Harrison insisted that a lot of the detail was wrong, including the numbers and the 4% outcomes.  A4e had told her that the numbers were wrong.  But she didn't know what the right numbers were.  She then accused Guru-Murthy of bullying her, and that word kept recurring.  They were making up stories for political reasons.  Asked about the extra dividend when they were not meeting their target, she said that she had invested £50m in the Work Programme (she appeared a bit confused at this point about what was her own money and what was A4e profits).  She is an entrepreneur who has helped tens of thousands.  She was sorry that the customers featured were not happy with the service, but then said that Roland's was "an improbable statement".
Harrison insisted that Channel 4 is biassed, having not reported that the fraud allegations had been shown to be untrue.  KGM said that they'd reported it at the start of the programme.  This was, he said, about value for money.  They appeared to disagree about why she had been asked onto the programme.  She kept using the word "bullying" and saying that figures were not true.  Why, asked KGM, did A4e say that it was a different company from 2 years ago?  She said that you could read that statement how you wanted.  Was the Work Programme set up to fail, he asked.  It was the most successful programme they've ever run, she said. Would she like to apologise to anyone else?  She said that her staff had been bullied, it had been a political maelstrom, and she was "useful to have a got at".
It was quite extraordinary, and I wonder how the current A4e bosses feel about it.  Not best pleased, I bet.

Monday, 22 October 2012


One of those "Top 50" tables appeared the other day on the Training Journal website.  A4e has made it into their top 50 training businesses.  Their definition of "training" is quite elastic.  21 of their 50 companies are in the "employment training" sector.  But it's fiscal success which is the criterion, not how successful they are at training.
And that raises the question of what actual training is available through A4e's w2w operation.  Leave aside such little courses as Basic Food Hygiene and Health and Safety, and also basic literacy and numeracy.  What actual skills training is being provided?  I'm not saying there's none.  I just haven't heard of any.  The "tailored support" supposedly available in that black box doesn't seem to include the up-skilling that the long-term unemployed really need.  Some qualifications are essential before you can get particular jobs; the CSCS card in construction, for instance, or the SIA licence for the security industry.  But people say that the providers (not just A4e) won't pay for this.  Former professionals require refresher courses which they can't afford themselves, but these are not forthcoming.  Someone genuinely wanting to become self-employed or freelance can't get the advice and training he needs.
Is this unfair?

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Talking tough

Mark Hoban, the employment minister, is reported in the Telegraph as saying that the unemployed should "roll up their sleeves and find jobs".  It's because the new sanctions rules start tomorrow.  13 weeks, then 26 weeks then off altogether for 3 years, if you don't comply with the rules.  The article says that, "Those stripped of benefits would have to apply for special 'hardship payments' and if successful are paid 60% of the amount they were getting in benefits.
There's huge public support for this, of course, and people will be confirmed in their opinion by the very dodgy figures from the DWP.  Last year, "Jobcentre advisers took action against 495,000 claimants for not doing enough to find work."  Presumably that includes the people sanctioned not by the Jobcentre but at the behest of the WP providers.  Naturally, no one mentions the fact that a good number of those were completely unjustified.  We're told that the figure includes 72,000 "who had refused an offer of employment".  Really?  I very much doubt that it was as simple as that.
The DWP should ensure that there is a complete paper trail for every "sanction doubt" as it's called.  There should be a dated copy of every appointment letter sent out, and a log of all letters posted.  There should be a separate system for such "sanction doubts" when the provider or JC has accepted the explanation of the client.  At present far too much power is in the hands of people who are not equipped to wield it.
Hoban is determined to talk tough.  "I make no apology for this," he says.  For people who refuse to play be the rules it will be "a rude awakening".  Along with the bedroom tax, I assume.

Friday, 19 October 2012

"Descending into chaos"

So says the Financial Times about the Work programme.  Mind you, they're quoting Labour's Liam Byrne.  But the verdict is based on a slump in the number of people being referred to the WP, down from 65,000 in February to 40,000 in August.  "Opinion is divided as to why," they say.  Some think that the pattern of employment is responsible, with fewer people being out of work for the 9 months stretch which would get them referred.  Certainly this would have an effect if there is a big increase in temporary jobs and unwanted part-time jobs.  Another view is that the Jobcentres have lost so many staff  that they are not able to keep up with the referrals.  Whatever the reason, it's "beginning to worry the market", says Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA.  Mark Hoban, the minister, isn't worried.  He says that referrals are higher than predicted when the companies bid for the contracts.  Byrne is pushing for publication of the performance data - and so are we all.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

"Whipping girl of the welfare apologists"

That's the curious description of A4e's owner Emma Harrison in the headline to an interview in the Sunday Times last Sunday.  It's a neat way of insulting all of us.  And another curiosity is that this is described as Harrison's "first interview since the scandal", completely ignoring the interview she gave to the Daily Mail on 11 August.  There's nothing new in this one, except that the self-justification is stronger than ever.  "I was busy helping families get back to work," she says.  The history of Emma and her company follows, complete with tuck-shop incident, and then the account of how she thought of the "family champions".  Her initiative was the inspiration for the whole government programme.  But then, "Suddenly I'm put forward as the face of all evil".  The article goes on: "Harrison does not deny that there was wrongdoing at A4e, but she believes it was blown out of proportion by political point-scoring.  Those who wanted to attack the government's controversial welfare policies had a handy whipping girl."  On the money, that £8.6m, she's still "unrepentant", giving the same explanation of her entrepreneurship as she gave to the Mail.  She now spends her time working with her Foundation for Social Improvement, helping small charities.
Perhaps this is another attempt at rehabilitating Harrison's reputation.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

More figures - but not the right ones

The latest unemployment figures are out, showing the number of unemployed down, the number in work up.  Good.  Except that they mask realities which are not quite so rosy.
Far too many of those extra jobs are part-time, and taken by people who want full-time work.  Then there's the fact that the population of the country is higher than ever, which has an effect on the percentages, and lots of people who would have retired haven't been able to.  And the figures are an average; in many parts of the country unemployment has risen again.  The Express reports on a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that 66 people "chase every retail job".
But perhaps the most worrying fact is that long-term unemployment isn't going down.  While David Cameron threw in a plug for the wonderful Work Programme at PMQs today, it's this group which the WP was supposed to help.  And that, perhaps, explains why we still have no results for the first year of the WP.  It's those long-term unemployed who were going to provide the big bucks for the providers.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Odd bits of news

You may be interested to know that A4e is ranked 164th in the Sunday Times top 250 league table of medium sized private companies.  Apparently the table is of companies which reported increased sales or operating profit.

Another bit of news concerns the civil servant Alan Cave, who was in charge of welfare-to-work schemes.  he has now taken a job with Serco.  Paul Flynn MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, condemned the move as an "egregious example of the revolving door" between government and industry.  There is nothing to stop the move, because Cave is apparently "not senior enough" to come up against the government's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.  So that's all right, then.

You might have missed this in the Telegraph today.  "120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco."  It doesn't matter how often this lie is exposed, it keeps coming back, because it's so convenient to press and government.  The 120,000 figure was plucked out of the air, a guesstimate done for completely different purposes some years ago.  It gave Emma Harrison her temporary exalted position as family tsar.  Now, local authorities identify those households which cause a lot of problems and are involved with lots of different agencies.  Some councils have been doing it for some years, and assigning a single officer as the conduit for all services and advice.  But of course the government wanted the private sector to have a profit opportunity, so private companies are now contracted to do this.  So those families, however many of them there are, will now not be able to spend their benefits as they wish. No more fags, booze or drugs.  And all spending on essentials to be done through designated supermarkets. So no more buying clothes in charity shops, or household essentials in the pound shop.  Go to Tesco or wherever, present your card at the till and proclaim to the checkout girl and everyone around you that you're a troubled family.  You can bet it won't stop there.  The far right want all benefits claimants to be paid in this way, and if it doesn't come before the next election, it will surely come after it if the Conservatives get in.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Private and public

Everything about Atos and its contract to carry out medical assessments is controversial.  Now there's a situation that strikes some MPs as ridiculous.  The Guardian reports that Atos has sub-contracted to an arm of the NHS in Scotland to carry out its new contract, to assess people for the new disability benefits.  The obvious question asked by the MPs is why contract to the private sector only for the business to sub-contract back to the public sector?  Why not go straight to the public sector?
But this is not new.  In the Work Programme there are a number of local councils acting as sub-contractors to the primes.  The contracts were deliberately designed to make it impossible for a public sector body to bid as a prime, so however well the councils do they will not get the full reward for their efforts.  To understand this we need to go back to the New Deal contracts prior to 2006.  Jobcentre Plus regionally contracted with many different organisations, including local councils, to deliver training.  When David Blunkett outsourced the whole thing, such organisations were relegated to sub-contractor status, losing 10% of their earnings to the likes of A4e (which secured a large chunk of the contracts).  Public sector involvement fell away.  The current payment-by-results model doesn't encourage such involvement.
Of course it's nuts to have a private company sub-contracting to a public sector body.  But the aim is to make money for the private sector.

The Public Accounts Committee has published the National Audit Office's report on its investigations into A4e.  It just fills out what we had already read.  Problems with one Mandatory Work Activity contract, so it was terminated.  No evidence of fraud in the Work Programme, but some ineffective validation checks.  The need for some remedial action to "improve levels of awareness amongst A4e staff of their Whistleblower policiyand procedures".  This was the report which angered Margaret Hodge and the committee because it was done without looking at A4e's own internal report on the fraud risks in the company.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

£10bn cuts

If you are unemployed you will be aware by now that it's your fault.  You lounge about at home in the lap of luxury while your neighbours go out early every morning to work for their living.  You need to be forced to work.  Ridiculous, isn't it?  But instead of having a rational debate about the reform of welfare, the Conservatives have decided to cut benefits piecemeal.  Having spent at least a decade in collusion with the right-wing press to demonise benefits claimants, they can now conduct polls and focus groups to show how popular it is to cut benefits.  Surprise, surprise.  There's no point in debating the rights and wrongs of this, because it's going to happen.  What is worth talking about is a radical rethink of the whole basis of welfare.  If you have any thoughts on this, please comment.

There have been a number of interesting reports in the last few days, both factual and speculative.  A piece in the Telegraph tells of the views of a group of Tory MPs.  They want to cut JSA by 10% after 6 months of unemployment and by another 10% after 12 months.  Another far right group, the think tank Policy Exchange, has come up with a report that shows that nearly a third of people leaving JSA are back "on the dole" (their words) within eight months.  Now, the conclusions they draw from this are bizarre.  Jobcentre Plus should have the same incentives as WP providers (despite the fact that there are as yet no published results for the WP).  Nasty things should happen to claimants of top-up benefits who are not doing all they can to find higher-paid or full-time work.  It seems to be about penalising people for the economic reality they can do nothing about.

Another interesting snippet comes from a BBC news piece about a disability rights campaigner at the Tory conference.  G4S has raised concerns about the number of referrals they are getting.  They have halved in recent months.  This is not contradicted by a DWP spokesman, who says that the number of referrals was always predicted to fall after the first year.  This is puzzling because it doesn't square with what we've heard about at least one A4e office, where the first appointment for someone referred was 7 weeks after the first phone call, and staff said they were overwhelmed by the numbers.  Was that unusual?

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The right debate?

There's been an interesting discussion on the Guardian's website about outsourcing in local government.  A "panel" of eleven people with professional interests in the subject took part - they included A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper - but other people could join in as well.  Ploughing through the whole thing will probably make you glaze over.  The people who are opposed to, or wary of, outsourcing are outnumbered, but raise obvious points about the way in which the private sector running a monopoly sucks money away from service delivery, the dangers of failed contracts having to be expensively returned to the public sector, and the unaccountability inherent in long contracts.

There are two aspects of this discussion which interest me.  The first concerns language.  All businesses and areas of interest have their own jargon, which saves time among insiders.  But it can also serve to shut out other people.  Worse, it can be used to create an illusion that only an elite understands these things.  The language of the discourse becomes opaque and virtually devoid of meaning - but it sounds good.  Neologisms are coined casually, and no one dare ask what they mean.  It becomes very competitive.  And language can be used to shift meaning, to redefine and rebrand.  Take the use of the word "commissioning" in this debate.  What you and I know as outsourcing, contracting out, becomes something else, in a way that's hard to define.  Olliff-Cooper's use of language throughout the discussion illustrates all of these points. It might be an interesting exercise for someone (not me) to analyse it.  But what matters is that for him and many of the other participants the question is not, "Can local government survive without the private sector?" (the original question posed by the piece) but rather how much more of the functions of local government can we contract out.  There is no moral dimension; even issues of democratic accountability can be brushed aside.

The second interesting aspect of the discussion is what it tells us about A4e's plans and ambitions. 
  1. "At my firm, A4e, we are going to be crowdsourcing what data it is that people would like to see."  Olliff-Cooper then states the obvious caveats, that basically you can't do it.  If you're wondering what "crowdsourcing" means, try Wikipedia.  You won't be much the wiser, because the definition appears to be elastic, but it seems to mean most commonly "outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people".  Whatever, he is reaffirming A4e's intention to be open and transparent.
  2. They have grasped that there is a difference between what Olliff-Cooper calls human and commodity services, and states the problems that this raises quite sensibly.  His solution, however, is "outcome commissioning, or, to put it in less wonky terms, picking what it is that you care about and paying for successfully getting that."  There are huge moral implications to this, of course.
  3. The ambition to have contracts which embrace all aspects of people's lives is still there.  He talks about commissioning "for more than one outcome: providers being repsonsible for helping a person in the round, with their debt, their mental health, their employment, offending, etc."  
So it was an interesting debate, but not the one we need to have.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Why I nearly despair

I shouldn't do this.  I know it's only encouraging him, and when he knows I'm angry he'll be chuffed to bits.  But I've just seen this Twitter conversation:

Read the correspondence on this post.  You'll notice that when I thought he'd finished I said, " I hope that you'll engage with this blog again if you have anything to say."  He came back with another post which still didn't answer any of the points which had been put to him.  He then sent a comment which read, "Dear Historian,  I know you are not going to publish this, but I wanted to say that I am really sorry to hear that you want to end the discussion there.  I am even more sorry that you feel I have not answered any of your points. I am not sure what points you mean. If you just send me a list, I will definitely reply. My address is ********.  (I'm not going to publish it.)  Have a good weekend, Jonty"

He's now using this to tell other people that I have banned him.  Why should I give my blog over to him to say anything he wants to?  Why should I embroil myself in a pointless email conversation with him?  If this really is the sign of A4e being "a different company", then it's not a difference we should welcome.

And no, I won't publish any response from him.  He has forfeited that right.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A different company?

Andrew Dutton says, "A4e is a different company from what it was two years ago."  Is it?

Obviously the disappearance of Emma Harrison as its figurehead has made a difference.  She's still the owner, but is no longer the face of the company.  Indeed, it doesn't have a face any more.  Other top people have gone as well.  So maybe the ethos of the company has changed for the better.  But that can only be judged from the outside by its clients and from the inside by its staff.  And neither seem impressed by any perceived change.

Bearing in mind that A4e is not all about welfare-to-work, it's that area which most people experience.  For staff, the pressure to achieve targets is as great as ever - more so, say some people.  They've moved to "team incentives" for what are considered unachievable targets.  They have to put pressure on clients from the outset.  We were told back in June that caseloads were unmanageable.  Now we hear of people having to wait seven weeks from their referral phone-call to their first appointment; and then of clients given no individual attention.  We don't know whether this is because the number of referrals is much higher than expected or because the required staff and facilities are not in place.  

Then there's the pressure to punish, or "sanction", every perceived failure to attend.  Jonty Olliff-Cooper over on Twitter is insisting that A4e don't sanction people, it's the DWP.  This is disingenuous.  A4e files a "DNA" (did not attend) with a single mouse-click.  They can also include an explanation when there's a good reason for absence.  These go up to a central office which passes them on to the DWP, sometimes leaving out the explanation.  And, of course, there can be mistakes.  Before the WP, clients had the chance to appeal before their income was stopped.  Now they can't, and there are some very angry and desperate clients.  

The answer to all this, according to Olliff-Cooper, is "mystery shopping, customer panel, forum and visits".  It sounds just the sort of thing people come up with in those awful meetings where you're supposed to be brain-storming; I can imagine the flip-chart sheets pinned up around the room.  It's something you can't see Harrison contemplating.  But "mystery shopping" is a non-starter, and is no substitute for the Ofsted inspections which the providers persuaded the government to drop.  A customer panel is similarly irrelevant.  A forum could be more interesting; but it would have to be pro-actively moderated, and I doubt very much that A4e could resist the temptation to moderate out everything critical or hostile, as they have always done on their websites and blogs.  The plans could easily end up being entirely cosmetic; intended to improve the image of the company rather than the way in which it works.  After all, if you believe that you head "a different company", why would you think anything needs to be changed?

And then, of course, there are the results.  In those areas where A4e's results can be directly compared with those of other companies they have not done significantly worse - or significantly better.  The fact is that almost all of them have failed to come anywhere near the results they promised in their bids.  Will those results now improve?  It didn't look like it from those leaked A4e figures.  But we don't know because the DWP refuses to tell us.  

If A4e wishes to be just another outsourcing company, it has that opportunity.  The very fact that it's allowing J O-C's antics suggests it isn't there yet.