Monday, 31 December 2012

Keeping up the attack

For the government, the holiday period is clearly a time to carry on the assault on benefits claimants.  David Cameron started it in his New Year message, covered in the Telegraph, which headlines it "We'll help the strivers, not welfare claimants".  Well, that's everyone who is elderly or disabled branded, as well as those trying to find work.  There's an extraordinary passage which shows just how clueless he is about the reality of unemployment:  “When people say we've got to stop our welfare reforms because somehow it is cruel to expect people to work, we are saying no. Getting people into good jobs is absolutely vital, not just for them, but for all of us."  Sorry?  Did someone say it was cruel to expect people to work?  What are you talking about?  The article points out that the message echoes that put out recently by Tories in marginal constituencies "demanding whether the Government should offer more help to 'hard working families' or 'people who don’t work'. The advertisements have been criticised by Labour as taking the Conservatives back to being the 'nasty party'."  Yes, and I would think they've alienated all the pensioners and disabled, too.
Iain Duncan Smith has been busy too.  Since it was pointed out that around 60% of those claiming benefits are actually working, he has turned his wrath on the tax credits system.  Several papers cover his attack, but the best version, perhaps, is in the Independent.  Now, I have to say that I was never entirely happy with the tax credits system.  It seemed to be subsidising bad employers.  And it goes too far up the income scale.  I knew a man with a young family who was on a good salary (I knew exactly what it was since it was partly my responsibility to pay it) who was eligible for the credits, while a single person under 50 wasn't.  I also knew someone who was offered a job with variable hours who panicked at the thought that he would face the money being clawed back.  But I wasn't aware that "after 2008 HMRC did not attempt to reclaim overpayments of less than £25,000. That is set to be reduced to £5,000 under the coalition, alongside moves to require proof of payments from those claiming for childcare or that children aged between 16 and 19 are in full-time education."  Reform is obviously necessary.
But, as usual, IDS goes over the top.  The Factcheck blog has shown that his figures are either wrong or just made up.  It seems that he will claim anything to justify his hostility to people on benefits.
Happy New Year, folks.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Writing - or respect?

Those who don't read the Observer should read this article.
Now, I start out by loathing the very notion of the "nudge unit" as a sinister way of manipulating people's thinking to suit the government.  However, the exercise described here appears to be based on sensible psychological insights (otherwise known as common sense) and designed to help and support rather than manipulate.  Notice that the trial was with people who hadn't been out of work very long, and that the emphasis in the article is on getting people to write down their commitments and express themselves about a traumatic event.  But the real benefits (which the comments under the article pick up) are summed up as, "The unit made three changes to the way jobseekers in Loughton were treated: the amount of paperwork was reduced at the first meeting so that the claimant could talk about getting back to work from day one; the conversation was focused on what jobseekers would do for the next fortnight and they were encouraged to make written commitments; and advisers at the centre were told to build the confidence and wellbeing of those still claiming after eight weeks, rather than treating them as failures."  (My italics)
I can remember a time when schemes like New Deal were promoted as being about helping to build people's confidence.  The Work Programme put paid to any such soft-headed notions.  Mark Hoban thinks the trial describes an "innovative approach".  No, Mr Hoban, it's a very old-fashioned approach which your department seems to have forgotten.

Mystery unemployment figures

There's a bit of a mystery surrounding the fall in the unemployment figures.  The economy is flat-lining; so why is the number of jobless predicted to continue to fall.  Several papers have addressed this.  The Independent points to the "flexible" labour market but says, "Privately ...... some ministers wonder whether there is another reason: that more people are working in the black economy because it has become harder to draw state benefits without being “hassled” by Jobcentres and having to make more effort to find work."  And, "One Whitehall estimate is that one in three people who stop claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) switches to working in the “informal economy”.
There are some startling figures about MWA.  "... almost two thirds of claimants placed on mandatory work activity (MWA) do not start it because they find a job, stop claiming benefits or simply do not turn up. Of the 90,000 people referred to the scheme, only 33,000 started. More than 6,200 have lost their benefits for not taking part."
The website Totaljobs has a different slant on this, according to the Express.  The number of applicants for every job vacancy is growing.  "The reality is that a great deal of the jobs created have been part-time and low paid, and many of those that have been taken off the unemployment roll have in fact just gone into government training schemes rather than paid work."
So what is going on?  Is the black economy growing?  Or are there more people simply disappearing from the figures because they are being shuffled onto different programmes or "sanctioned"?

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A4e's year

2012 has been an eventful year for A4e.
There have been changes at boardroom level.  Roy Newey went early in the year; he was the director who travelled round the world selling the company's services.  He remains an advisor to the group board, and a small shareholder in the company.  Also gone is Jo Blundell, the director who was, briefly, the face of A4e for Flexible New Deal.  She has formed something called "futurepublic" (capital letters for proper nouns are unfashionable), advising outsourcing companies.  Matt Stevens came in as Chief Financial Officer.  David Blunkett MP ceased to be an advisor at the end of October.  The biggest change, of course, was the departure of Emma Harrison as Chair of the company.  She still owns 85.1% of the shares, but her role on the Board has been filled by Sir Robin Young as Non Executive Chairman.  Mark Lovell is Executive Chairman (and owns 6.5% of the shares) and Andrew Dutton is CEO.  Jonty Olliff-Cooper is Director of Policy and Strategy but not a board member.
The year seemed to start well, with Harrison riding high as the government's "families champion", rolling out her scheme to pilot local authorities and put forward by Cameron as the solution to all our social problems.  That all came crashing down with the revelation that she had received £8.6m in dividends in the previous year.  When the Daily Mail in particular got its teeth into that, tearing into her for days on end, she was forced to stand down from her government role and from the Chairmanship of A4e.  Drawn into all this terrible publicity were the allegations of fraudulent activity along with persistent failure to meet targets.  A4e's reputation could hardly get any worse.  Expensive PR consultants were brought in to repair the damage.
It didn't help when A4e was told by the Advertising Standards Authority that it could not describe itself as a "social purpose company" since this could mislead people into thinking that it was not a profit-making business.  The response was somewhat petulant.
The focus for the media was always on the Work Programme and its predecessors.  A leak of A4e's performance data to Channel 4 News showed that, after about 8 months, the results were terrible.  Another leak of the full first year figures confirmed the worst, but the leak was also the occasion of Emma Harrison's re-emergence for what was to prove a disastrous interview, for her and for the company.  It was a set-back for the rehabilitation process.
What about business?  It has been a lean year for new contracts.  The OLASS prison contract was delayed by concerns over A4e's record but started in November.  And that's it.  International business seems to have shrunk.  There was a point when A4e bragged about operating in 11 countries.  Now it's 5, not counting the UK, and of those one, Spain, hasn't actually yielded any contracts yet.  We will have to wait a long time to see how all this has impacted on profits.  The Work Programme hasn't contributed anything to profits in its first 14 months, but doesn't appear to have caused losses.
Perhaps it's a sign of wanting to create a new image, but A4e has a new website.  It's a lot cleaner and less fussy than the old one.  The slogan - "Improving people's lives" - is still there, but less stridently.  All those blogs are gone, and the grammar is a lot better.  Maybe it's an indication that A4e will become just another outsourcing company in 2013.  Personally, I'd like to see the whole business of outsourcing shrink drastically.
My thanks to all those who have followed this blog in 2012 and contributed to the debate.  I wish everyone, whatever their circumstances, a good Christmas.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Universal Jobmatch to be compulsory

You weren't paranoid, you were right.  It's just been announced that registration with the Universal Jobmatch site is to be compulsory for those on JSA, so that activity can be monitored.  In a very brief piece on Radio 4's The World at One, it was announced that it will be "mandatory" soon, and those who refuse to register or then don't do what their advisers tell them can be punished.  Iain Duncan Smith says it will enable advisers to ensure that claimants are applying for the right jobs.  There was a brief mention by the reporter of the recent problems with fake vacancies on the site, but not of the possibilities of harvesting people's personal data.
There was also mention of the proposal to pay benefits via a card with restrictions on it.  IDS said that they have been looking for some time at whether it would be feasible.  There are no plans at the moment, but they are thinking about it for such groups as drug addicts.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse .....

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Merry Christmas, Mr Shelbrooke

With the season of good cheer almost upon us, there's a wonderful example of exactly the opposite in a story which has just popped up on the news feeds from the Express.  The MP Alec Shelbrooke (Tory, Elmet and Rothwell) tells us that "Benefits claimants should be banned from spending their state handouts on cigarettes and booze".  Later in the piece he says, "Introducing a welfare cash card on which benefits will be paid, claimants will only be able to make priority payments such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing. The purchase of luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky television and gambling will be prohibited."

It's not new but it's exceptionally stupid.  And note something else important - the Express's determination to talk about "state handouts" rather than benefits.  It's all part of the ugly propaganda campaign jointly being waged by the far-right media and their MP chums.  All the buzz words are there: "something for nothing culture", "striving low-paid workers", "idleness of the shirkers", "hard-working families".  It's so tedious and so offensive.

If you want to let Mr Shelbrooke know your opinion, he has his own website.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Punishing your customers

That sounds ridiculous - you don't punish your customers.  It would make more sense, of course, if we didn't use the totally inappropriate word "customers" when talking about the Work Programme.  A4e uses it, and I'm not sure how many other providers do, but it's one of those weasel words, distorting the language.  A customer is someone who buys goods or services.  That means that the customer of A4e is the DWP which commissioned their services, or the taxpayer who foots the bill - not the person who is required to turn up.  So I prefer the word "clients".
Okay, why would you punish your clients?  That seems to be what A4e and the rest are doing, as more and more people are "sanctioned".  Let's dispose of the myth, perpetuated by Jonty Olliff-Cooper, that it's not A4e which sanctions people, it's the DWP.  As someone pointed out, that's like saying that it's not the traffic warden who gives you a parking ticket, it's the local council.  And now that punishment means at least 3 months of destitution, the situation is really serious.  
If it's a case of people refusing to engage with the WP, or any other programme, altogether, then they know what the penalty is.  But I'm hearing more and more stories of punishment for supposed failures to comply which are very worrying.
I'm not naive.  I know that there are two sides to every such story, and I don't automatically believe what I'm told.  How could I?  But much of it rings true.  For instance, we learned recently that one in five of all the homeless people referred to the WP has been sanctioned.  It's not difficult to see how that could come about.  Homeless people can't lead organised lives, and they can't rely on getting any post.  But what about all the stories of people being punished for missing appointments they weren't aware of, or being told that an appointment was being changed and then being punished for not attending on the original date?  Such incidents have been described in comments on here, and in others which I haven't published.
There seems to be something terribly wrong with the systems, and I don't know whether they are peculiar to A4e.  Perhaps an employee could tell me whether I've got this right.  When a client is perceived to have done something wrong, like missed an appointment, a click of the mouse "raises a sanction doubt".  This may be accompanied by an explanation, but the "doubt" stands.  The system then sends all these to a central point, which forwards them, often minus the explanation, to the DWP.  The client is then notified by the DWP that he's being punished.  Thus, someone who has been told that he needn't attend an appointment because he'll be away on a training course gets his income stopped.  The articulate and persistent client can sometimes fight these sanctions, but the misery they are causing is immense.  The system should be changed.
There's another worrying trend.  Hostility between client and adviser is nothing new, and is inevitable sometimes.  But more people are reporting encounters which go against the DWP's own guidance on the behaviour of the professionals.  I recall the middle-aged chap who said he came back from his first appointment almost in tears at the bullying nature of the meeting.  A woman talks about her husband being spoken to as if he were a naughty child.  And I recently had a horrifying comment which I couldn't publish because it identified the people concerned (please, please will the author of that get back to me) describing how an ex-soldier has been punished for not showing due respect to his "adviser".  Respect, certainly in this case, doesn't seem to work both ways.
Most clients, I know, have good, friendly relationships with the staff employed to work with them.  There will always be a small minority who really shouldn't be in the job, or whose training has been inadequate.  But now, with pressures on staff ever greater and punishments so severe, the situation does seem to be getting worse.  And that's dangerous.
The question remains: why would you punish your clients?  Every client represents an opportunity to make a profit, and the DWP's answer to failing providers is to take away the clients.  I asked the same question back in June when it was reported that in the first 8 months of the programme A4e had requested 10,120 punishments, only 3,000 of which had been accepted by the DWP.  Don't those figures show what's wrong?  At the time Corporate Watch said, "By the time it's finished, more people will have been sanctioned by the Work Programme than properly employed through it."  How true.  And why?  The answer must be that every punishment is seen as a warning to others.
Please note that I can't deal with "not for publication" comments by giving individual advice or answering questions.  If you have a query or want to say something, please frame it in such a way that I and the regulars can respond on the blog.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Two stories

A couple of news stories:

We learned yesterday that most bus companies, including the big ones, have agreed to provide free bus travel for unemployed people who can produce a Jobcentre Plus travel card.  But, as the Independent points out, it's for one month only - January.  It's unlikely to help you get a job, but enjoy it.

Then there's the story in the Guardian about the mess which the Universal Jobmatch site has become.  "The Universal Jobmatch site, which has so far cost taxpayers more than £17m, has advertised fake jobs including for an MI6 "target elimination specialist" and "international couriers" for CosaNostra Holdings, as well as listing pornographic websites. There are fears that jobseekers could become victims of identity theft. On Tuesday, the Department of Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith admitted 6,000 jobs had been blocked since the site launched on 19 November and scores of employer accounts had been blocked."  And we learn that "Monster, the company that operates the site, had been previously caught out by Ukraine-based hackers in 2007 when the confidential details of more than 1.3 million people were stolen."  You couldn't make it up.  And it's apparently putting off genuine employers.  But still people are being told, wrongly, that they have to register with the site.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Targets and definitions

In an outsourced society, targets are, apparently, vital.  You can't measure the success or failure of a contract without them.  When companies bid, they have to agree to meet targets.  But as we've seen so often, not meeting them doesn't matter much.  There's no penalty.  You just don't make as much profit.  But if that's already factored into your calculations, who cares?  All the Work Programme primes missed the first year target, which was pitifully low anyway.  Even delaying publication of the data for a couple of months didn't push the figures up enough.  So what happens now?  A stern letter from Mark Hoban.  Well, what else can he do?  If they've all performed equally badly, or if the differences between them are minimal, you can't penalise one and not the others.  And anyway, the only suggested penalty is to cut down the number of referrals to the worst performing companies.  For some, that would be welcome, since they can't cope with the numbers they've got.
There are other targets, unofficial ones, which do have an impact, but on clients rather than the companies.  Think of Atos.  Both the DWP and Atos have denied that there are any targets for getting people off incapacity benefits.  But whistle-blowers among Atos staff have said that they are indeed given targets and are pressured to meet them.  And now we have the Universal Jobmatch site.  Again, the official line, in all the guidance, is that it's not compulsory for people on JSA to register with it.  But we know that people are being told, by both JC and Work Programme advisers, that it is compulsory, because they have been given targets, and it's easier to give orders than to persuade.

Two other words have become part of the language of welfare-to-work, and in the process have been neutralised.  The first is "mandatory".  We all know what it means in practice.  But it somehow sounds better than its dictionary definition (a real, physical dictionary, my copy of the Concise Oxford, 8th edition) which is simply "compulsory".  So let's not talk about people being "mandated".  They are compelled.
Even more weasly is the word "sanction".  It's an interesting word, because it can mean two very different, almost opposite, things.  One meaning is approval.  The other is penalty.  And it's the second meaning, of course, which pertains here.  When people don't do what they are compelled to do they are penalised - punished.

So if you're an outsourcing company which has failed to meet its targets, you can't be penalised.  But if you're a client, you can be told that something is compulsory when it isn't and penalised for not doing it.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Turning the tide?

Thanks to a correspondent for drawing my attention to this item on Channel 4 News tonight; I missed it.  It vindicates what many people have been saying, on this blog and elsewhere.  The Universal Jobmatch website is vulnerable to hackers stealing your personal data, simply because no one is checking whether the vacancies advertised are genuine.  And people are being told, by Jobcentre and Work Programme staff, that they were obliged to sign up when they're not.  A good bit of work by a group of "hackers" - though they didn't have to actually hack the site to expose its failures, just register as employers using clearly false details.

You will not have noticed any references to the Work Programme in all the discussion of the Chancellor's financial plans this week.  I wonder why that is.  But when you got over the blow about benefits effectively being cut, you may have noticed something of a backlash in the media.  Osborne began his attack with the usual reference to hard-working people going off to work in the morning while their neighbours, "living a life on benefits", slept in.  But the opposition and commentators were quick to point out that 60% of working age benefits go to people who are in work.  Not that that bothered Osborne, who talked about "fairness".  And it didn't bother the Express, which talked about "Britain's benefits free-for-all" and "state handouts", deliberately ignoring the truth (so what else is new?).  Now the Guardian has reported that Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, didn't like Osborne's rhetoric much.  "Cable ....  distanced himself from the way in which the chancellor had sold his squeeze on welfare benefits in his autumn statement, saying he identified with those claimants who resented being regarded as a scrounger. 'I think that kind of approach and language is completely wrong.  I made it fairly clear that that stuff about people being unemployed at home with the curtains drawn is not the way, certainly, I would have addressed it. I think most people out there are looking for work, most people in this country are very conscientious, and we should do what we can to support them.'"  Good.  It needs more people to say that.  The government is playing a game with the Labour party by introducing legislation on this below-inflation rise in benefits, daring them to oppose it.  Maybe they'll have the courage to do so.

The Huffington Post has published an interesting article headed "Work Programme increases hardship and makes little difference to compliance".  At last, some common sense.

So are we beginning to see just a glimmer of the turning of the tide?  Maybe not.  But we live in hope.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

£1.375m for Emma

It's a story in today's Observer, but it's an irritating one.
The figures come from her husband, who said she got a total dividend of £1.25m in the year from April 2011, plus £250,000 from January this year.  Okay, she didn't step down as Chair of A4e until March, so this is hardly a surprise.  Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, is outraged, justifiably.  But the paper seems to forget that a big slice of A4's income doesn't come from welfare-to-work.  There are plenty of other lucrative contracts.
And there's a worrying inaccuracy in the story.  "She became a high-profile figure through reality TV programmes such as The Fairy Jobmother."  Er ... no.  She wasn't in that.  It was Hayley Taylor, who got her big break as an A4e employee in Benefit Busters.
I've no objection, of course, to the Observer / Guardian keeping this in the public eye.  But let's get it right.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A frightening future

I'm scared of what's being done to the poor in this country.  I don't have to worry about the welfare system for myself, not at the moment.  But the damage that's being done to society, and the potential implications down the road, are truly frightening.  Let's just see how all the government's actions add up.

  1. The Work Programme was meant to start to get the long-term unemployed back into work, and leave them with no excuse for not having a job.  It was largely hot air, of course, but Iain Duncan Smith seemed to have convinced himself that it was real.  He is unable to abandon that now.
  2. In the absence of actual jobs, there is a sharp increase in the amount of "mandatory work activity", whether as part of the WP or as a separate programme.  Some of this is time-limited, some is indefinite in length.  From Monday this is to extend to those who are still officially sick or disabled (see an excellent Guardian article).  The DWP refuses to disclose the identity of employers profiting from this scheme, despite a ruling that they should.  They have admitted that private companies are involved, but insist that the work has to be "of community benefit".  The DWP's own figures show that this activity has no impact on whether someone can get a real job, so the whole thing has to be seen as deliberately punitive, or pandering to Daily Mail readers.  Common sense says that this is preventing the creation of real jobs.  If companies can get free labour, there is no need to hire anyone.
  3. In the ideological fantasies of the right, there is no contradiction between the failure of the Work Programme and belief that people dependent on benefits are too comfortable, and need to be made to suffer in order to find work.  According to IDS, the system is "stifling incentive, opportunity and responsibility".  (The Telegraph yesterday.)  It should not "pay for a life on benefits when work is available".  Last Tuesday's release of performance data didn't actually happen, you dreamt it.
  4. So their benefits are to frozen.  So far we don't know whether that includes housing benefit.  If it does, there will be a rapid increase in homelessness.  Even if it doesn't, the impact of an ever-declining standard of living will have the same effect eventually.
  5. If all you can get is part-time work, and you are eligible for tax credits, you may well have to get more hours to qualify.  It's going up to 30 hours a week minimum.  So if you can't get more hours, your only recourse is to stop working altogether and depend on benefits entirely.  
  6. The "bedroom tax" isn't a tax at all, but a gratuitously nasty attack on the poorest.  Anyone living in "social housing" (I loathe that term) and claiming benefits shouldn't have a spare bedroom.  So you'll have to move.  If you're unlucky enough to live in one of those areas where there is a severe shortage of, say, single-bedroom flats owned by councils or housing associations, then you're going to have to move right out of the area, or move into private rented accommodation - which will cost more, so the cost to the taxpayer goes up.  Wonderful.
Don't look to Labour to change things.  

Some people talk in apocalyptic terms about "work camps" or "back to the workhouse".  Others foresee civil unrest - rioting, in effect - on a big scale.  I don't know.  But I'm scared.