Thursday, 29 November 2012

What next?

The dust has settled on the Work Programme publicity.  Amazingly, the spin failed and the right information got the headlines.  The government had delayed as long as it dared so that it could put out 14 months of figures rather than 12.  The 12-month outcome figure was around 2%.  But even the 14-month figure came out well below the dead-weight figure.  Who would have guessed that the media would actually be talking about the dead-weight figure?
But this blog is supposed to be about A4e.  So what has all this meant for them?  Their results were not outstandingly bad or good, so they weren't singled out.  Channel 4 News were able to resurrect that Emma Harrison interview to show how wrong she was.  And A4e could really have done without that.  After the crisis of February, when she had to step down from her government post and from the chairmanship of A4e, George Bridges of Quiller Consultants was called in to use his connections to get the company through the mess.  Harrison's appearance will surely have set back those efforts.  But more important in the long run is that the company itself cannot hide behind platitudes.  The failure of the Work Programme puts it under scrutiny.  Andrew Dutton writes: ".... our current performance is materially better than the first year data shows".  Like all the other providers, the claim is that more outcomes are in the pipeline and will show up in the next release of data.  But that was always going to be the case.  He adds that "A4e has invested £50m in the past 18 months into our services, people and offices."  This is what Harrison said was her own money.  However, other providers claim to have broken even in the first year of the WP, so we can assume that that investment has been recouped.  They have a curious set of graphics on their website.  The figures include a claim that they saved the taxpayer £24m in benefits paid to people who now have jobs.  They do not indicate whether this figure takes account of in-work benefits which people still have to claim.  And does it take into account the amount the government has paid A4e?  Anyway, figures like these mean little; it's the experience people have of the company, and its performance in doing the work it's contracted to do which count.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

How A4e did

Those good folks at the Guardian have published the WP performance data by provider.
A4e have 5 areas.  Their best performance was in South Yorkshire, with 3.55%.  Their worst was in the Thames Valley, with 2.78%.  The average for all 5 areas is 3.28%.  A4e isn't the worst but it's far from the best.
Krishnan Guru-Murty has tweeted: "A4e founder Emma Harrison not available to explain why her claim #c4news figures were wrong turned out to be, er, wrong."

The Work Programme - what we now know

Two quotes from that grisly Emma Harrison interview on Channel 4 News:
1.  (about the leaked A4e figures) "They're wrong."
They were right.
2.  "The Work Programme is the most successful programme we've ever run."
It isn't. 
The one thing that's missing from the data released so far is the comparative figures for the providers, at least in a form that means something.  So we don't yet know how A4e compares with the others.
Everything else is out there.  The dead weight figure for the first year was 5%, the number expected to get jobs without the WP or any other intervention.  So the target of 5.5% was very low.  The actual figure achieved is 3.5%.  There were 200,000 breaks in claiming, which the ERSA (the providers' trade body) wants to spin as 200k jobs.  Mark Hoban on the Daily Politics claimed that one in four have found work.  Iain Duncan Smith says that more than 50% have come off benefits.  Yeah, right.
The best summary, surprisingly, comes from the Daily Mail.  What a pity they spoil it by referring to people "returning to claim handouts".  Hoban intends to write to the worst-performing providers telling them to produce an action plan.  A far cry from the original promise to "sack" them.
There's a fair bit more talk to come today, much of it trying to prove that black is white.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The press we deserve?

It's the middle of the night and I can't sleep, so I'm checking the news feeds ahead of the release of the performance data at 9.30 am.  There's plenty of interpretation already.  But the prize must go to the Express: "Jobs scheme 'helps 20,000 a month'".  Yes, they've taken the ERSA's spin and published it as the facts, ignoring deliberately the reality that this is people who've found any sort of work, temporary, part-time, which got them off the books for a little while.  "Almost a third of those who started the Work Programme in June 2011 have been supported into a job so far, said the ERSA. More than 64,000 people found work under the programme in the three months to September, it was reported."  (The words "helps" and "supported" will startle many people who know that the providers had nothing to do with it.)  But this is what Mark Hoban and the government wanted, of course.  Don't bother with the facts - that the figures for sustained jobs are appalling - just spin dizzily so that Express readers get the propaganda.
The Independent goes with "Government's Work Programme only helps one person in three find a job".  They do report the ERSA's figures, but understand the spin.
The Guardian has published the full data which the private companies have put out and asked readers if they can do anything with it.  Good for them.
The Financial Times yesterday had access to the actual figures and reported that the best-performing company, Serco, earned nearly double what the worst-performing, Prospects, earned.
So as as we await the actual figures (and I hope I can get some sleep in before then) we can already see what the press are going to make of it.  Accurate reporting?  Some papers don't know what that means.

Don't expect much

The release of the Work Programme performance figures tomorrow will probably be something of an anticlimax.  We know what they amount to - performance targets, which were very low anyway, have been missed.  But there won't be any fuss.  The media are obsessed with Leveson, whose report is due out on Thursday, and this is just not interesting.  We can expect something in the Guardian, and probably in the Independent and on Channel 4 News.  But the excuses are already in, and who cares anyway?
Just in case, Mark Hoban has already written to coalition MPs telling them how to respond.  The New Statesman has the letter, and it's pathetic.  It's too early for the results to mean much, he says.  And in case anyone is looking too closely at the figures he's going to do a "data dump", throwing out there figures for previous programmes and various "ad hoc statistics".  This might serve to confuse the issue.  The letter concludes: “The Work Programme is designed to be a major improvement to welfare to work support, my goal is to drive forward its effective implementation. I hope you will join me in supporting the programme on the day.”
The Express, with its usual inability to join the dots, has a story today about a report from the Joseph Rowntree Trust describing the millions of workers living in poverty.  Job insecurity, short-term work, part-time working, all contribute to this.  The Independent goes for a report by three homelessness charities about what damage the Work Programme has done to the homeless.  One in five homeless people on the WP have been sanctioned, i.e. made even more destitute than they already are.  Yet 60% of the homeless had not even been asked about the problems they faced.  Charities continue to do for nothing what the WP providers are supposed to be doing for payment.
Yet we're being told that the failure of the WP is due to the double-dip recession.  The Indus Delta site covers a report by Inclusion on the effects of the government getting its forecasts wrong.  They expected growth of 2% but ended up with minus 0.4%.  That would reduce job outcomes by 15% in the first year of the WP.  So it's not the fault of the providers.  That's all right, then.
The main reason for disinterest tomorrow, however, will be that there is a narrative about unemployment, encouraged by the media and the government and accepted by the majority of the public, and the WP is a mere detail.  The welfare system is bloated and has to be cut back drastically.  Benefit-dependency has people living comfortable life-styles with no incentive to work.  There is plenty of work out there if people were willing to do it.  The failure of the government's flagship programme to address long-term unemployment is a minor matter.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cynical manipulation

There's something sinister going on.  The DWP has released new figures ahead of the WP performance data - the figures for those who have been "sanctioned" i.e. stripped of benefits.  The papers seem to understand that they're being manipulated but fall for it anyway.  The Mail headlines it "More than 150,000 forced off benefits after refusing to participate in Iain Duncan Smith's back-to-work scheme".  So already they don't grasp what people are being sanctioned for.  Turning up late for an appointment is hardly "refusing to participate".  But they then go on to talk of, "Suspicions that figures will be used to distract from report that fewer than one in 20 on scheme have found a permanent job".  Yes.  Apparently sanctions are running at 15,000 a month.  Do the papers seriously think that these are all people who are "determined to avoid getting a job at all", in the words of Mark Hoban?
The Telegraph has spotted that "More people who take part in a flagship government jobs programme end up being stripped of their benefit payments than finding permanent work, new figures suggest."  This is a much better account of the situation; perhaps Patrick Hennessy, the author, has a better understanding of the subject.  But they still repeat the statement from Hoban: “Through the Work Programme we are offering the hardest-to-help claimants extensive support in order for them to take control of their own lives and return to work. They need to do their bit to find a job but we’ll be there to help them do that.”
The comments under both articles demonstrate both the entrenched attitudes, and the anger which is building up.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Preparing to admit failure

The Work Programme has failed.  We knew that, but Mark Hoban has admitted as much in advance of the performance data being released this coming Tuesday.  He has given an interview to the Telegraph revealing that fewer than 5% of clients have found sustained work, and that the companies have to "get their act together".  The best Hoban can say is, "I think we can see some positive signs."  Doesn't sound good, does it?  And the excuses are a bit lame.  The economic backdrop is different now, so it's harder to get back into work.  And "what work looks like is different as well".  I assume that means that there's more part-time and temporary work.  It's embarrassingly at odds with the spin put on the employment statistics.  There's no apology to the unemployed, of course, those who are the real victims of the failure.
Will Mark Hoban be forced to front the excuses on Tuesday, or will Iain Duncan Smith step up to the plate? And will the media understand the implications and ask the right questions?
An interesting sidelight to the story is the way in which the writer of the article, Robert Winnett, twice refers to A4e's record.

Points of view

There have been some interesting bits and pieces in the media this week which show how the battle to stigmatise those who have to depend on benefits is being won.
The Guardian carried a report on Tuesday of research by a team from the University of Kent.  Not, you notice, a think tank but an academic institution.  It reported that there is "a climate of fear" among people who need to claim benefits which frightens them off.  Government disinformation has meant that 1.8 million people have been "potentially too scared to seek help".  The report lists some of that disinformation (lies, in effect) then examines how the newspapers have systematically branded as scroungers those on benefits.  It's a damning report, but where was the coverage elsewhere?  There wasn't any, because it doesn't fit the agenda of the government and its mouthpieces.  Well done to the Guardian, though.
On Thursday Iain Duncan Smith appeared on BBC's Question Time.  I wasn't able to watch all of this, but I caught the row between him and another panellist, Owen Jones.  Jones tried to talk about the demonisation of the poor, but IDS snapped back at him with a furious face and voice.  And even the usually sensible Deborah Meadon disagreed with Jones.  The truth was outnumbered, as usual.
Plenty of coverage was given this week to Lord Freud, the employment minister in charge of reforming the welfare system.  Radio 4 discussed the "bedroom tax", under which people on benefits and living in social housing (I hate that term) will lose a big chunk of money if they have a spare bedroom.  A reporter went to the North East and discovered that there is a huge shortage of housing which people can down-size into.  So they have to either move far away or go into private rented accommodation which will end up costing much more.  When the reporter put this to Freud he waffled and retreated to the previous question.  Clearly what seems eminently sensible in an office in Whitehall doesn't work in the real world, but nobody wants to know.  Freud again showed the extent of his understanding in an interview in House Magazine, reported in the Guardian.  Apparently people on benefits are too comfortable and have a lifestyle which discourages them from taking risks.  He then made the sort of remark which comes back to haunt you:  "Freud, a former journalist and investment banker, told the magazine that his background did not make him unable to understand the reality of living on benefits. 'You don't have to be the corpse to go to the funeral, which is the implied criticism there,' he said."  The Telegraph also reported the story and the reaction of Liam Byrne for Labour.  The difference in the comments under the two articles speaks volumes about the polarisation of attitudes.
On a lighter note - sort of - was the report of a fake job advert which appeared on the website.  It was for a professional killer for MI6, and was so well put together that it was a while before anyone spotted that it was a fake.  Makes you wonder how many other fake jobs are being advertised.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


If I get it wrong I'll put my hand up and apologise, especially if I'm threatened.  So I've removed the post "Lucky Man", which David Blunkett has complained about on the following grounds:
A) He wasn't Secretary of State in 2006 when the new outsourced New Deal contracts started.  Okay, he had resigned from the Cabinet in 2005.  My mistake.
B) He doesn't work for A4e now.  He's still listed as an advisor on A4e's website but the latest edition of the Register of Members' Interests shows that he ceased to be that on 31 October this year.  Since that register was "as at 5th November", I can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that when I wrote the post.
(I won't publish any comments on this.)

Monday, 19 November 2012

You win some, you lose some

It's more than three years since I first wrote about CLACs - Community Legal Advice Centres.  They were the government's response to the spiralling cost of legal aid.  Get local councils to make contracts with a single deliverer of all advice services, including legal advice, and channel the money exclusively to that deliverer.  It seemed pretty clear that they envisaged that the existing services, such as the CAB, would team up with others to bid for the contracts; and that's what happened in the first CLAC.  But then A4e spotted an opportunity, got together with a Sheffield legal firm and set their bid writers on it.  The result was, inevitably, that A4e got the Leicester CLAC.  The Hull one followed, and only then did alarm bells start ringing.  The government hadn't really intended that the CAB, along with all other advice services like Law Centres, would go out of business because of lack of funding.  When I blogged about this in May 2010 there were five CLACs with five more planned, but A4e still only had the two.  Then, as funding was withdrawn across the piece, the idea of the CLACs quietly died.  The Leicester one is still run by A4e, but in Hull the contract ends in March next year and is not being renewed, because of the loss of the £600k from the LSC which was half its funding.  The CAB is being brought back in.
It doesn't matter much to A4e.  The CLACs have been a stepping stone to other advice service contracts, like the Money Advice Service.
There's an interesting job on offer at A4e's Westminster office - Public Affairs Officer.  It seems to be mainly about political connections.  Any takers?

Friday, 16 November 2012

... and the truth is buried

I pointed out the claim that there were 2,000 vacancies in Hull, an area of high unemployment.  Despite the exposure of this claim as at best highly misleading, it has taken wings.  Today the Express has turned it into "Unemployment 'blackspot' that has 7,000 jobs going begging".  Yes, you read that right, 7,000.  Because, as everyone knows, only about 30% of vacancies are advertised in the Jobcentres.  The story does point out what some of those vacancies actually are; highly specialised and requiring qualifications (and they include Army jobs!).  But that doesn't deter the DWP chap.  "Stuart Griffiths, Hull district manager for the Department for Work and Pensions, said unemployed people had a misconception that there were no jobs on offer.  He said: 'It is a myth that there are no jobs out there.  People sometimes come into our offices and say there are no jobs out there but it is simply not true.  These might not be the jobs of people’s dreams – we accept not everyone wants to be a carer or a butcher, for example. We all want to create and attract new jobs into the city, and we all want the jobs from large companies.  But what we are saying is, if people want to train to work in renewables, for example, why not take a job now and earn money so you can train towards the career you want?'"
Hang on, how many of these jobs are open to trainees with no experience?  And it doesn't deter the odious Taxpayers' Alliance.  "Last night Robert Oxley, campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: 'It is ludicrous that we are paying out so much in jobseekers’ allowance when there are jobs out there waiting to be filled.  The welfare system has long needed reform so that it both equips people for work and ensures they take the jobs on offer.  With money tight we can’t afford for people to remain out of employment. It is vital that the welfare system ensures that work pays and that dodging it does not.'"
That's the agenda, of course.  All those people in Hull, and elsewhere, who are desperate for work have now been branded as workshy, and it feeds the far right's determination to destroy the welfare system.
Strange, but no one has mentioned the Work Programme.  You would think the providers in the area (they don't include A4e) would have a comment to make.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

How the untruths spread

There's a Jobcentre manager in Hull who might be regretting the "facts" he gave to the local paper.  He certainly should be.  The Hull Daily Mail reported today "2,000 jobs on offer in Hull, but no takers, Jobcentre says".  Hull has double the national average of people on JSA, so this would be a big story if true. But the comments in reaction show that it isn't.  Somebody went on the website and found only 250 vacancies within 15 miles of Hull, and most of those were for people with specific qualifications like an HGV licence.  Other people pointed out that many listed vacancies are not jobs at all.  And so on; I don't need to labour the point for many of my readers.  But it's been repeated on the BBC's website as "Concern over Hull's 2,000 unfilled job vacancies", and again on the local news.  I can't imagine that unemployed people in Hull are too thrilled about this.  Is it happening where you are?
This sort of very damaging myth helps the government.  The Guardian reports that Iain Duncan Smith is about to put his proposals for welfare cuts before the government.  They will include "freezing the up-rating of benefits for two years and then linking it to pay as opposed to inflation".  Because, of course, if there are all those workshy people out there they don't deserve any more.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Sense and nonsense

We reported back in April this year that Richmond upon Thames council had put its contract for supporting and training local voluntary organisations out to tender, and the winning bid had come from the Foundation for Social Improvement.  Yes, the FSI, the creation of Emma Harrison, a registered charity with two other A4e directors on its board and based at A4e's Westminster offices.  The leader of the opposition on Richmond council was kicking up a fuss about handing contracts to a "scandal-hit organisation" rather than to the local CVS which had been doing the job satisfactorily.  20 days later we learned from the Guardian that the contract was worth £85,000 and that the council had decided to pull out because of the potential risks.  The author of the article, Patrick Butler, pointed out that the FSI had assets of only £90,000 in its latest accounts, and so it was odd that it had got the contract in the first place.  Now we have an update from something called Your Local Guardian.  The contract has been awarded to the Richmond CVS (Council for Voluntary Services) and the Richmond Adult Community College.  The piece shows how a bad reputation can follow you around.  "A4e was embroiled in scandal last month," it says, "when figures suggested it received £46m from the taxpayer last year, for its work on the Government's flagship Work Programme - despite finding long term jobs for less than 4% of its unemployed clients."
The FSI's accounts for the year ending March 2012 have not yet been received by the Charity Commission, but since 2008 it has received a total of £1,686,933, much of it from A4e, and spent a total of £1,691,561.

The government has come up with a "new" way of dealing with NEETs - those youngsters not in employment, education or training.  The Telegraph calls it an "earn or learn" plan, while the Express, in typical style, headlines it "Go to work or lose benefits".  It could involve "the creation of new-style 'traineeships' set up to prepare school leavers for jobs in relatively low-skilled industries."  Does anyone smell a new contract here?  Perhaps we should recall Labour's original New Deal scheme, back in the late 1990s, set up to training or work placements for NEETs.  That expanded into the full New Deal which was outsourced by David Blunkett in 2006.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Weekend thoughts

As we await the Work Programme performance data, we can see that the excuses are already prepared.  The figures for the number of long-term unemployed show that, far from being reduced by the WP, they are going up.  In September there was a 2% increase on the previous month for those out of work for 12 months or more, and that's a 128% increase on the same time last year.  That is a huge indictment of the scheme that was going to solve everything.  Yet we read (in the Telegraph, for example) that providers are complaining that not enough "hard to help" claimants are being put on the programme.  Those on ESA are not being referred in the numbers expected, and that cuts the possible profits of the providers.  We often read that Jobcentres are not referring people in the expected numbers, but nobody seems to have asked the Jobcentre managers why that is.
Are the providers really concerned that they're not getting enough of the most difficult clients?  They appear to be doing little or nothing to help those they do get.  We know (from the whistle-blower on Channel 4 News) that A4e's advisers have huge caseloads and have to concentrate on those most likely to get work i.e. those who've been out of work for the shortest time.  Perhaps that's because so few people are getting work.  Instead of getting them off the books, providers have to maintain contact with all these clients.  It's a mess, and it will be very difficult to present it as anything else.
We are not to be allowed to know which organisations are taking part in "workfare" programmes.  The DWP has defied the verdict of the Information Commissioner, asserting that the hostile action which would follow that disclosure would make those organisations withdraw.  That would be particularly true, they say, of MWA, the mandatory work activity programme.  The quote (in the Guardian) is that it would collapse "with incalculable losses to the taxpayer and many thousands of persons in long-term unemployment who are supported by the scheme."  I don't get the "losses to the taxpayer" bit.  And as the article says, "The government's own research also showed that the scheme does not help the unemployed to get a job once they've finished the four weeks of work.  It also had no effect on getting people off benefits in the long term." It seems, though, that most of the organisations involved in MWA are in the voluntary sector.
The government is fast approaching a formal return to the age-old concept of deserving and undeserving poor.  It's going ahead with plans to give priority in council housing lists to "working families, ex-servicemen and people who volunteer".  (See another Guardian article.)  This may not work in Labour-controlled areas.  And what constitutes volunteering?  Everybody else who is homeless would be shoved into private rented accommodation, perhaps miles from where they've always lived.
Critics talk about a return to the workhouse.  No, there won't be workhouses.  But the mindset is very similar to that which produced the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Jonty Olliff-Cooper seems to believe that A4e's problem is its image.  If only people knew the company better, and understood what it does, they would see how wonderful it is.  This is, essentially, the mistake made by Emma Harrison.
It's not a good idea to try to psychoanalyse someone you've never met.  But it always seemed to me that Harrison's image of herself was bound up with her image of the company.  "Improving people's lives" and being "passionate" about everything was how she saw herself, and A4e was supposed to reflect that.  She cannot have been unaware that the reality was rather different.  There was plenty of publicity over the years; the reported bad conditions in the Manchester office in 2008; the Benefit Busters programme showing bullying and time-wasting in the Hull office; the Radio 5 Live programme; and so on.  But none of that altered her perception.  She was the charismatic leader of a company that was doing good, and both government and the media encouraged her in that belief.
Olliff-Cooper seems to have a similar outlook.  If A4e had more "exposure" people would see how valuable its work is.  If critics would only talk to him, and come and see for themselves, they would stop criticising.  It's not surprising, given his background in Tory politics, that he doesn't see any fundamental objections to the outsourcing business, and his job, in part, is to promote it.  But he ought to realise that shedding light on the companies involved is dangerous. G4S has just lost a prison contract and has not made the shortlist for a number of others.
Over the years A4e has spent millions on marketing and PR.  Was it money well spent?  It won't count for anything when the performance data for the Work Programme comes out.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

More money, please

It's tedious to have to do it, but I need to respond to a Guardian interview with A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper.  Part of it concerns his previously stated view that "the lines drawn between the public, private and voluntary sectors are becoming meaningless".  Many of the comments under the article make the obvious distinction; profit.  But there's more to it than that.  During the life of the last government many charities were drawn into getting all their funding by competing with the private sector for government contracts.  You could argue that that puts them onto the same footing as the likes of A4e.  But they are still charities, having to put any profits back into the organisation rather than paying out dividends to shareholders.  Of course, it's in A4e's interests to blur the boundaries.  Cooper says, "If you're a business that wants to make social value everything you do, then we get into this really anxious territory.  I want to understand why that is, and how we can change it."  Well, where to start?
You can't imagine any of the other outsourcing companies talking in these terms.  So why is A4e trying to rebrand itself as something other than a profit-making business?  That is, perhaps, obvious.  But it won't wash.
He wants more money for the Work Programme.  I don't need to spell out the objections to that, other than to say that many clients report that absolutely no money is being spent on them.  The article says: "He certainly has solutions at hand: more exposure for organisations such as A4e, describing why they're important and should be valued; government flexibility to take on contracts across a range of sectors to create a joined-up support system."  On the first point, be careful what you wish for.  The exposure suffered by outsourcing companies this year has not exactly been favourable; the more the public understand it, the more they resent it.  On the second point, this is A4e clinging to the ambition of the "super-contract".  Not even this government is going to go down that route.
The last paragraph of the article is blether with a startling obscenity - though it apparently isn't startling in Jonty's world.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The lull before the storm?

It's official that the Work Programme performance data will be published on 27 November.  There can be little doubt that the delay has been because the first year results have been so bad that the government wanted to get another 6 months' worth, in the hope that they show improvement.  The media are gearing up to analyse the figures and present stories about the people behind the numbers.

There's an excellent article in the New Statesman by Alan White, centring on "Why Eco-Actif went bust" but telling the whole story of what he calls UK plc.  If you want to understand how we got to this position of handing over all our services to the private sector, this is the place to start.

A story in the Guardian about Atos reminded me of something which happened with A4e more than a decade ago.  Apparently Atos, in bidding for (and winning) the £400m contract to carry out disability assessments, claimed that they would work with a number of disability organisations.  But those organisations say that they knew nothing about this (and most say that they wouldn't ever work with Atos).  The DWP isn't bothered, however.  Back in 2001 A4e put in bids for all the Business Link organisations (which were working perfectly well but which the government wanted to flog off).  In their bid for the Somerset contract A4e claimed that they had the support of local business leaders, including the leader of the Council.  This was news to the gentleman in question, and the bid had to be withdrawn.  But A4e still got the bulk of the contracts.

The dust has settled after that disastrous interview on Channel 4 News.  Emma Harrison did herself no good at all, and her company's cause has been put back.  But what really matters is whether A4e is doing what it is paid to do.  We have to wait a while to find that out.