Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The future of "welfare", part two

I've been putting off writing this.  It's easy enough to write about the history of social security, but the future is necessarily speculative.  And it becomes increasingly obvious that there may not be a future for welfare at all.  This appeared yesterday in an article in the Telegraph by Peter Oborne: "Iain Duncan Smith's brave and ambitious programme to reshape the welfare state along the lines envisaged by Beveridge 70 years ago is making some progress."  This is so nonsensical that one must assume that Oborne wasn't taught history at his public school.  Yet this is part of the narrative with which this government is destroying the whole concept of social security.  It will become, again, the punitive last resort of the 1834 Poor Laws.  Running it will be a profit opportunity for private companies, with no involvement of the tatters which remain of the public sector.  There will be a huge role for charities.  Universal Credit, if it ever happens, will signal the final killing-off of the idea of National Insurance.  Benefits, already no longer seen as a right, will cease in their present form.  Welfare will have been reformed out of existence.
This is not inevitable, unless a Conservative government comes in in 2015.  Even with a Labour government, though, the future looks precarious.  One hopeful sign is that some Labour thinkers have talked about returning to the contributory concept in social security.  I believe that this is essential.  Benefits, as of right, should be paid if the claimant has contributed over, say, 6 months in the preceding year; paid at a fairly high level for a limited period - again, say 6 months.  Once those contributions run out, then benefits should fall to a level set as the minimum someone needs to live on decently.  This minimum should be sacrosanct.  No one's income should fall below it.  There would have to be means-testing, but not of the old kind.  And "conditionality"?  Yes, there would have to be the condition that the claimant is looking for work, if that's possible.  Sickness and disabilities would attract the same minimum income but recognise additional needs.
Housing benefit is a huge cost, and it's money paid to landlords, not to the claimant.  There should obviously be a big push on building and buying more housing in the public sector.
And there should, equally obviously, be massive job creation.  That's not easy in a capitalist economy, but it could be done, through local authorities, for instance.  Unless there are jobs to go to, as we are seeing at the moment, long-term unemployment will remain high.
What we need is not tinkering around the edges.  Nor is it the kind of change which this government is engineering, based on personal aggrandisement and contempt.  We need an agreed set of principles on which to base a system which doesn't divide people into skivers and strivers.  Any thoughts?

Friday, 27 December 2013

.... and a happy New Year

While the more fortunate of us were tucking into our turkey on Christmas Day, even if it was courtesy of a charity in a homeless shelter, Iain Duncan Smith was composing a piece for the Daily Mail.  There will, it says, be "No hiding place for those who opt for a life on benefits".  He didn't have to think too hard about it.  All the familiar cliches and lies are there, like "lifestyle choice".  On the benefit cap, for instance, "around 19,000 who would potentially have been subject to the benefit cap have already moved into work".  That's two fingers up to the government's own statisticians who told him that the statement was dishonest.  But the main point of the piece is to trumpet the new scheme "that will require 6,000 jobseekers to spend 35 hours a week at a supervised jobsearch centre.  People who have been out of work for several years or those who are lacking motivation [my italics] will be required to spend up to six months looking for and applying for jobs in return for their benefits."
More dishonest twaddle.  This is about sanctioning as many people as possible as quickly as possible.  Even if they turn up on time and do as they're told, they'll be sanctioned for "lacking motivation".  Some will go into the cash-in-hand economy (which hurts the rest of us) and some will simply be homeless.  But it will give the repellent IDS the chance to say that he's got them to sign off.  There's no detail about who will run these centres, but they will certainly provide jobs for loads of security staff.
The Mail likes this stuff so much that it has an editorial comment on it.  The clever chappy who wrote it thinks that IDS's initiative "will doubtless provoke howls of indignation from the liberal establishment".  (Who are they, you may well ask.)  "It is a robust approach and there are those on the Left who will say it's cruel.  They said the same about the benefit cap, the 'bedroom tax', the unpaid work programme and universal benefit [sic]."  I could go on quoting, but it's too nauseating.
The lie about the numbers being driven to get a job by the benefit cap was published by the Telegraph on Christmas Eve, with elaborations and the statement from IDS that it had "pushed 250 people back into work every week".  (For those who are not clear why this is a lie, it was pointed out by the statisticians that there is constant "churn", some people coming off benefits and some coming on, and there is no way of knowing how many of those signed off as a direct result of the cap.)
More embarrassing for IDS (no, okay, he is never embarrassed) was the Christmas Eve news that 32,000 people had not received their benefits because of an "error" by the DWP.  Not to worry; if they rang up before 5.00 pm they would get the money within 3 hours.  Presumably, if they were lucky enough to hear about this, the unfortunate could phone a premium rate number -something which the government has now decreed should stop.  The DWP will have to give out private local rate numbers - a victory for Margaret Hodge and her Public Accounts Committee.
Boxing Day brought an interesting exclusive in the Independent.  Labour has decided that outsourcing public services is not necessarily a good thing.  They've recognised that the contracts don't provide better competition or drive down prices because "what we have in this country now is an oligopoly of a few companies that are not competing effectively and are providing poor value for money for the taxpayer."  Hallelujah!  Yes, Labour started it, but if they've now seen the light we can only rejoice.  Perhaps they'll also do something about the scam reported in the Guardian on Boxing Day.  The GMB union is taking a case to court against a marketing company, PerDM, which apparently employs people on a fake self-employment basis and then pays them way below minimum wage.
It's not going to get any better, folks.  The best we can hope for in 2014 is that there are more real jobs, and some of those desperate for work and a viable income will escape from the clutches of this appalling government.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tidings of comfort and joy

After I had read this piece in the Observer last night, I put it together with something a friend had told me the day before.  The friend had been helping to set things up for Christmas at her local church, when a woman came in looking for "the food bank".  She was very pale and looked ill and exhausted.  There isn't a food bank in that part of the city, so my friend volunteered to drive her home.  In the process she learned something of her story.  It was the usual thing - very long delays and complications in getting her benefits through.  That's one of the problems which the Trussell Trust want to discuss with Iain Duncan Smith.  But he's refusing to meet them, accusing them of publicity-seeking, scaremongering and having a clear political agenda.  Not, of course, like the political agenda which led the UK government to turn down a £22m grant from the European Aid for the Most Deprived fund specifically for food banks.
I am no longer a Christian by most people's definition; but I still regard Christian values, and the teachings of the gospels, as a pretty good guide for living.  Iain Duncan Smith does profess to be a Christian - a Roman Catholic.  Maybe he went to Mass this morning.  So I wonder how he squares that supposed faith with his actions and attitudes.  Oh yes, I know that terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, and of every religion.  He's hardly unique.  But the psychology is fascinating.  I could cite any number of passages in the gospels which should give him pause for thought.  How about Matthew chapter 25, starting at verse 34?  Or if you prefer one of the Old Testament prophets, there's a piece of advice in Micah, 6 v.8.  In the old translation it says, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."  The three qualities - justice, mercy and humility - seem entirely lacking in IDS.
When IDS or the DWP mess up, the cost falls on the hapless benefit claimant and / or taxpayer.  Hugh Muir in the Guardian returns to the story of the botched procurement process for the Universal Jobmatch site.  He originally reported back in March this year that there were three bidders at the start, Steria Ltd, Methods and Monster Worldwide.  Steria challenged the evaluation process, so it was run again, but Methods started legal procedures and were paid off.  The DWP wouldn't say how much it had cost to stay out of court.  But now, with the DWP annual report published (very late) there's a clue.  There's a payment of £950,000 "to compensate a supplier for reasonable costs incurred in connection with procurement activities".

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Ho, ho, ho says Iain Duncan Smith

There was a debate in parliament yesterday on food banks.  You might have missed this, because only the Mirror and the Independent reported it.  The BBC ignored it completely - I wonder why.  The debate was forced by a petition started by blogger Jack Monroe which received 143,000 signatures; but the Tories treated it with contempt.  The Mirror's report is fascinating (start at the bottom).  IDS didn't speak, leaving it to Esther McVey (who is rapidly proving herself to be the most stupid person ever to become a minister).  Both of them left the debate after an hour, a departure noted as "unusual" by Speaker Bercow.  Tories apparently smirked throughout, bursting into laughter at stories from Labour MPs of the hardship forcing people to food banks.  Labour's Sir Gerald Kaufman described McVey's speech as the nastiest he had heard in his 43 years as an MP, according to the Independent.  All that effort put in by Monroe and others achieved nothing, because the Tories are impervious to criticism, and because the public didn't get to hear about it.
The Guardian's website yesterday carried an excellent, though depressing, article on the impact of all the government's austerity measures.
The latest Work Programme figures are out.  The headlines are a bit confusing.  They say that after 2 years around 22% had achieved a job outcome.  But then they say say that 1 in 6 "who had spent sufficient time on the programme to do so" had achieved a job outcome, and that's only 16.7%.  Use the tabulation tool to get tables.  A4e seems to have performed at about average.  We'll have to wait till January to see what effect this has had on A4e's finances.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sanctions are good for you!

There's an excellent article on the Guardian's website today.  But what really caught my attention was a comment underneath it:
"In an effort to counter some of the bad press that the new tougher benefit conditionality and harsher sanctions have received the DWP intranet carried a 'good news' story last week.
8 case studies were published detailing the thanks that had been given to various staff for sanctioning or threatening to sanction jobseekers. A typical comment was something along the lines of 'Getting sanctioned was my wake up call. It was the kick up the backside I needed to understand that looking for work was my full-time job. I now have a part-time job in a fast food restaurant and I take extra hours as and when I can get them. I'd like to thank my adviser for getting me to take job-seeking seriously'..."
The poster went on to say that s/he was wholly unconvinced by this tosh - as, of course, are the rest of us.  One is reminded of the sort of fake testimonials you get on the literature of producers of rubbish.  And it's creepy.  Who are they trying to kid?  This site is only available to staff, so presumably they're trying to convince the staff themselves that attacks of conscience can be dismissed.  Let's hope they don't succeed.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The future of "welfare", part one

In my last post we looked at the history of the concept of welfare, or social security.  An understanding of that history is essential to any discussion of the future.

First, let's get to grips with Iain Duncan Smith's concept.  There are those who believe that he wants to end the welfare system altogether.  I don't think that was his intention when he came into the job.  He had a messianic sense of his personal mission to transform it, certainly.  First, with the Work Programme, he was going to put the majority of the unemployed back to work.  But the first year's results were so terrible that his own party were furious with him.  The second year was little better, and it was obvious to everybody that people were only finding work because the economy was picking up.  The long-term unemployed, young people and those kicked off incapacity benefits onto ESA, remained stubbornly out of work.  IDS turned his wrath on them.  They were the enemy, scuppering his vision, and he has become more and more determined to punish them.  Then, Universal Credit was going to remould the system, "making work pay"; and it would bear his name as its creator for ever, just as the NHS was the creation of Aneurin Bevan.  But that hasn't worked either.  So IDS is an angry and disappointed man who has no place in the future.

I have said before that the mindset of the right today reminds me very much of the climate of opinion which produced the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.  There was then no real concept of a "public sector".  Governments and councils (corporations) could hire people to carry out the work.  And there was no thought of insurance against misfortune for the masses, at least not administered officially.  The poor did create "friendly societies" into which they paid a few pennies a week, as well as burial clubs which ensured that there was money for a decent funeral.  But National Insurance had to wait until 1911.  It has now become almost irrelevant.  Worst of all, we have gone back to the notion of the deserving and the undeserving poor, with the former being thought of as very few in number.  (In the mind of the right, of course, there are contradictions.  There's plenty of work out there if people were not too idle to do it; but some unemployment is necessary for capitalism to work.  People should equip themselves with skills and qualifications; but employers shouldn't have the expense of training their workforce.)
A clear demonstration of the "new" thinking comes in an article in the Express today.  It's not so much in the plans put forward by a member of the Conservatives' policy board, Nadhim Zahawi MP, as in the phrases he uses.  Take, "Mr Zahawi said that the welfare state was established as a 'last resort, not a lifestyle choice'" and it was "trapping people into a life of dependency on the state".  Later he says that he wants to "help the next generation think more carefully about their relationship with the welfare state".  His words show no understanding of how "the welfare state" grew up, or why.  He sees it as a project set up by the tax-paying majority to provide benevolently for the non-working minority, rather than as what it was; a system of mutual aid and insurance.  Not a "safety net" (as he also describes it) but a guarantee of security for all.
The right has, in effect, scrapped all the thinking which produced the progress of the twentieth century, the progress towards social security paid for out of general taxation.  Indeed, it has gone further than its 19th century predecessors by putting all services in the hands of profit-making companies.  In this vision of the future there would only be private insurance against misfortune, not public provision.  The state pension will have less and less value at the same time as the pension age rises, so private pensions will replace the state pension.  What about those who never earn enough to pay private insurance?  Tough.  Perhaps they'll come round to the idea that for those who really can't do anything for themselves and would otherwise be littering the streets, there should be special hostels ....

It doesn't have to be like this, as I shall explore in another post.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A brief history of "welfare"

I've been considering this post for a while, but two things came together this morning to push me into writing it.  First there was this excellent piece by Zoe Williams on the Guardian website setting out her view that Iain Duncan Smith wants to end social security altogether.  Then there was a comment from Chris_2812 asking if I'd chosen my nom de plume for a reason.
So, here's a brief history of welfare / social security, and I'll get on to the future of it after that.  I am not bothering to check my facts here, so if I get something wrong, feel free to tell me.

Back in the days of small communities, right into what we call the Middle Ages, there was only the security of family and clan.  Those who could work, did.  Those who couldn't had to rely on the community.  For everyone who wasn't part of the elite there was the constant threat of famine and starvation.  Disease, injury and warfare took its toll, and most people died young by our standards.
The spread of Christianity, particularly of the monastic movement, provided a basic form of help.  The monasteries would give out food, provide a refuge and what healthcare was possible.  Wealthy individuals and craft guilds, as well as churches, set up "hospitals" for the "aged poor".  There was still famine if a harvest failed, and there were still warring aristocrats destroying what little you had, but the monasteries, convents and abbeys were the only source of help the poor had.  So when Henry VIII closed them all down in the 1530s and confiscated their wealth, the consequences were terrible.
The start of something we would recognise as a welfare system came in the reign of Elizabeth I, with the Poor Laws.  The unit of local government was the parish, and each was run by a committee or "vestry".  These were given the power to levy an annual rate on property and use the money to pay "relief" to those in need.  It could be humiliating to ask for this relief, of course, and you wouldn't get it if you were considered to be undeserving.  Nor would you get it if you didn't belong to that parish, so people who had travelled in search of work would be turfed out if they didn't find it.  If an unmarried mother sought relief, she had to name the father of the child, and the man was then served with a "bastardy order", forcing him to pay for the child's maintenance.  Parishes set up buildings known as Charity Halls, or, sometimes, workhouses to provide lodging for those who needed it.  The system lasted into the 19th century, but it was creaking by the end of the 18th.  In 1795 one parish, Speenhamland in Berkshire, devised a way of compensating agricultural labourers for falling wages and rising grain prices; they would top up the wages.  But the men who paid the rates were also the employers who paid the low wages, and they didn't see why they should subsidise someone else's wage bill.  So the system failed.
There had to be changes.  But this came at a time when the elites were increasingly fearful of the potential power of the masses.  The American War of Independence had been followed by the French Revolution.  The British government set up an effective network of spies and militias, and the increasing civil unrest was ruthlessly put down.  Poverty became increasingly prevalent with industrialisation, and there were many riots and protests.  There was also growing agitation for electoral reform.  This atmosphere resulted in a blueprint for the system of "relief" which was based on making it as unattractive as possible.  In 1834 parishes were combined into unions, each of which set up a workhouse.  These would be the only source of relief.  (In fact, there was always some form of "out-relief" which paid a pittance to paupers who were not in the workhouse.)  The regime in these places was notorious.  Men and women were separated, so elderly couples who had been married for many years were forced apart.  Children were effectively sold as apprentices to the factory and mill owners.  Adult paupers were put to work on humiliating physical labour.  Yet these places were the only resort for those who could not fend for themselves.  The system lasted well into the 20th century, and most of us have ancestors who died in the workhouse.  When I was a child, old people would still talk about claiming benefits as "going on the parish".
The start of change came in 1908 with the Old Age Pensions Act.  Some, but by no means all, elderly people were given small pensions which kept them out of the workhouse.  In 1911 came the National Insurance Act.  People in work paid their "stamp" to ensure that, for a limited period, they would be paid if they were sick or unemployed.  As the century went on, a system of social security grew.  There were means-tested payments for those who didn't qualify for the NI-based, or contributory, benefits.  This means-testing wasn't just about any money you had in the bank.  Inspectors would come to your home and assess what assets you had, even down to the quality of the clothes you were wearing.  Sickness benefits grew up separately.  For some reason, it was always thought that a sick person needed more money to live on than someone who was simply out of work.  These higher payments provided an incentive to "go sick" rather than claim unemployment benefit, and this suited governments at times because the sick were not counted in the unemployment figures.  Disability benefits also grew piecemeal.
The last Conservative government (which fell in 1997) tried to make some changes.  The contributory benefits were kept low while the non-contributory "income support" rose, thus destroying the whole concept of contributory benefits.  They introduced tests for people on disability benefits; and they were planning to stop housing benefits for single people living alone.  The incoming Labour government stopped this.  Labour brought in tax credits for some categories of workers, to top up poor wages (with much the same effect as the Speenhamland system); but they also chipped away at the concept of "income support" as the minimum which anyone needed to live on, by turning emergency grants into crisis loans.  The current government has ditched the concept altogether.  I don't need to go into what else the current government has done.

I hope this quick gallop through history sets the scene for considering the future of social security.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A damp squib

A lot of people were looking forward to Iain Duncan Smith's appearance in front of the Work and Pensions Committee, believing that there would be an interrogation that would skewer him and expose his sins.  Those people were always going to be disappointed.  By all accounts he got more and more bad-tempered under questioning.  When Glenda Jackson MP had a go at him he accused her of "conflating so many issues here, it's almost becoming risible".  (Yes, I'm sure we were all amused.)  Debbie Abrahams MP was accused of "moaning".  What she raised has only been reported, as far as I can see, in her local paper, the Oldham Evening Chronicle.  She has a whistle-blower, a JCP employee with 18 years experience, who told her about quotas for sanctions and how "claimants are being set up to fail to meet benefits criteria - without regard for justice or welfare".  IDS's response?  He is unaware of the claims.  "I would like to see the evidence for it.  He's making allegations about people who work very hard.  I'd be prepared to meet him to discuss it but there is someone in charge of this they should meet first.  If he's got an issue to raise I would want to know".  Well done for trying, Ms Abrahams, but this is yet another lie from IDS.
As for those dodgy statistics - it wasn't his fault.  Surprise, surprise.  It was actually Grant Shapps' fault.  Well, one story was, let's not talk about the others.
The main focus was on the progress, or lack of it, on Universal Credit.  He admitted to a write-off of £40m on the IT so far, but, hey, what's £40m when you're IDS?
Among all the accounts in the press, the one in the Spectator is the most informative.
One suspects that Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, would have given him a worse time and wound him up more spectacularly.  The PAC might even have raised the matter of sanctions, and all the cruelty being perpetrated by the DWP.  But in the end it wouldn't have changed anything.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Burying bad news

In the big news towards the end of this week, stories about "welfare" got rather lost.  Iain Duncan Smith finally admitted that his Universal Credit target isn't going to be met; but everybody knew that.  Various reports should have caused trouble for the government, but few noticed.  There was a report pointing to the failure of HMRC to police the minimum wage legislation properly, said the Guardian.  Only a couple of employers have ever been prosecuted, and only one named and shamed, although 10,777 firms have been investigated.  On the same day the Independent's Charlie Cooper wrote about the "public health emergency" of food poverty.  That's the verdict of a group of expert doctors and academics, following a report commissioned by Defra - a report which, in a familiar move, the government has not published, claiming that it needs a "review and quality assurance process".  The Trussell Trust, which runs a lot of food banks, says that they've tried to talk to the DWP, but been refused a meeting.  Meanwhile the experts cite recent figures showing a surge in the number of malnutrition cases diagnosed in English hospitals.
The people who read those two articles probably didn't read another in the Express.  The paper which has done so much to spread hatred of the unemployed found a story which ticked a different set of boxes.  "Veteran loses his jobseekers benefits for selling poppies" it yelled.  The 60-year-old former soldier gets £71.20 a week and has done everything he can to find work.  However, he "admitted" to the jobcentre that he'd spent 24 hours over a two-week period selling Remembrance Day poppies.  He was promptly sanctioned for a month for not "actively seeking work".  The response from the infamous, anonymous DWP spokesperson was predictable: "We make it clear to people what the rules are and they risk losing their benefits if they don't play by them.  Sanctions are only used as a last resort."  The Express's outrage is commendable.
But none of this made much of an impression on the public as a whole, and it all faded away as other news monopolised the media.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Five A4e staff on fraud charges

Thanks to ITV News (the only ones so far who've reported it) we know that, in addition to the nine former A4e staff who were arrested on fraud charges, another four are to be charged.  The CPS says:
"It is alleged that on or before 18 March 2011 A4e employees Ines Cano-Uribe (Contract Manager), Sarah Hawkins (Quality Co-Ordinator), Serge Wyett (Operations Manager), Matthew Hannigan Train (Team Leader) and Hayley Wilson (Recruiter) conspired to forge documentation in relation to services provided by A4e, with the intention of convincing Department for Work and Pensions auditors that the documentation and claim for payment were genuine. One of the women, Ines Cano-Uribe, already faces two existing charges relating to the alleged fraudulent activity at A4e."

It seems to confirm that the charges relate to forging job outcome claims.  These five will appear at Slough Magistrates' Court on 6 January.

Monday, 2 December 2013

A good read

A couple of publications from the DWP might prove interesting reading for those who are unemployed.

The first is entitled "Jobseeker's Allowance Back to Work Schemes" and tells you how Jobcentre Plus "will help you find work".  It doesn't get off to a good start, since there's a grammatical clanger in the second paragraph, but then, in seven sections, it tells you what to expect.  I won't go through all of it, but the section on the Work Programme might cause some amusement to those of my readers who have experience of it.  Then we come to a section entitled "Explaining benefit sanctions".  Read it carefully, after reading the WP section, and it's clear that the DWP is perfectly happy that someone can be made destitute on the whim of an "adviser".

The second document is a final evaluation of what they're calling "The Jobcentre Plus Offer".  (The use of buzz words like "Offer" is supposed to make it sound more like the private sector.)  Half of it is about how the "Offer" is perceived by claimants.  It's upbeat about the finding that "Most claimants gave a positive assessment of the support on offer by Jobcentre Plus".  But then it says that "most" is actually three fifths, or 60%, which means that 40% were not happy.  But hey ....

Iain Duncan Smith is appearing in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee on Wednesday (unless he manages to postpone it again).  Let's hope that the members of the committee ask the right questions.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The jobcentre experience; and pauper management

You might already have concluded that Esther McVey is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  Read this piece in the Liverpool Daily Post, and not only will your suspicions be confirmed, but you might wonder whether the stupidity is deliberate.  You see, sanctions (i.e. being made destitute) are in the best interests of the unemployed, much like a detention handed out by a teacher who just wants her pupils to learn their lesson.  And anyway, there's an independent review of the sanctions process going on.  Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, points out that the review won't look at "the appropriateness of sanctions".  The rest of the article, and the people quoted, put McVey's nonsense into perspective.
As do the figures elicited by Stephen Timms, the ineffectual Labour minister, for assaults against jobcentre staff.  They've gone up from 228 in 2009/10 to 476 in 2012/13.  Frankly, I'm surprised it's not more.  As far as I'm aware, this has only been reported in the Yorkshire Post.

There's an excellent article on the Guardian's Comment is Free site today by Jeremy Seabrook.  I have often compared the mindset of the elites today about "welfare" to that of the people who introduced the Poor Laws of 1834.  Seabrook draws the parallels with what was called "pauper management" in a serious historical examination with the activities of A4e and the like today.  None of what is going on in 2013 can be properly understood unless you grasp that it's a reversion to past attitudes.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The prison experiments and what they teach us

You may have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment.  It was conducted by a psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University in 1971.  In brief, he set up a prison in the basement of the university and divided a group of students into "guards" and "prisoners".  The aim was to see how easily the "guards" could slip into their roles and perhaps take it to extremes, as well as seeing how the "prisoners" accepted their roles and how they behaved.  Anyone could leave at any time (but only two students did leave early).  Zimbardo decided to stop the experiment after six days because some of the guards had resorted to psychological torture, and Zimbardo himself realised that he was allowing it.  The experiment has often been cited to show how normal, sane people can become bullies and even torturers when the situation encourages them to so so; and how "prisoners" can passively accept their fate.
In 2002 the BBC decided to repeat the experiment, but in a more careful way.  It's described on the study's website.  The conclusions are more nuanced, but it's particularly interesting that a rebellion by the prisoners was successful.
What has all this got to do with the normal topics of this blog?  Well, I thought about it yesterday when the comments were mounting up about the behaviour of some Jobcentre and WP staff.  They are, in a sense, the "guards".  They could just as easily have been the "prisoners", the clients, but having been given the role of power, some can slip easily into authoritarian attitudes and bullying.  They are under pressure from the group.  Compassion is discouraged.  "You park your conscience at the door," as Polly Toynbee's correspondent said.  Indeed, if you don't join in you will lose your role, i.e. your job.  And this is being directed from above; you not only have permission to behave brutally, you are being told to do so.  The "prisoners" are powerless.  Rebellion would require the sort of co-ordinated action which is seen as impossible.
I'm reluctant to explore this any further.  Read up on the experiments and see what you think.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The conversion of the Express?

An extraordinary story popped up in the news feeds this morning - extraordinary because it's in the Express.  Headlined "Food Bank Britain: Thousands need charity handouts because of welfare system failings", it talks about "scores of cases" which their investigation has "uncovered" of "administration errors and punitive sanctions".  It goes on to list cases of ludicrous sanctions and a few admin errors, and it ends with the verdict of the director of Oxfam's UK poverty programme.  They haven't bothered to ask the DWP for a response, just quoting Esther McVey's platitude that sanctions are only used against people who were "wilfully rejecting support for no good reason" and going on to prove her wrong.  The comments facility isn't available under the article.  Why?
What has brought about this startling conversion by the Express?  Perhaps it's just opportunism.  They've realised that there's a story here.  But I bet we see an article about the workshy before long.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The outsourcing argument

The National Audit Office has come up with some facts about the profits of the outsourcing companies, and the risks of contracting out our public services.  There's a brief summary in the Independent and a longer analysis in the same paper.  The focus is on the profit margins of G4S, Serco and Capita, but the second piece also says that Atos and G4S pay no corporation tax.  The NAO is making a number of important points, which Margaret Hodge MP summarises: " These reports together raise some big concerns: the quasi-monopolies that have sprung up in some parts of the public sector; the lack of transparency over profits, performance and tax paid; the inhibiting of whistleblowers; the length of contracts that taxpayers are being tied into, and the number of contracts that are not subject to proper competition. The recent fraud allegations surrounding the Ministry of Justice's electronic tagging contracts with G4S and Serco are also a reminder of how important it is that government properly scrutinises and monitors its contracts with private providers.”

In an interesting piece by the BBC's Robert Peston the journalist points out that much of the information in the report was given voluntarily by the companies because they don't have to disclose any of it, despite representing 15% of public spending.  He looks closely at the profit margins, and says that the balance of risk is changing.

Last week the Cabinet Office chief procurement officer, Bill Crothers, said that the government spent too little time making firms "deliver what they said they would do" for the price, and needed qualified, experienced people to do that.  Although he didn't say so, the Work Programme is an example of that failure.  The DWP has relied on the incentive of profit and explicitly promised the contractors that it wouldn't ask questions about what they were doing.

A4e doesn't figure in these discussions by name, because it's not one of the big four.  But that doesn't mean that A4e is out of the game.  The big cake on the table at the moment is the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts (they'll have to come up with a better name than that) and A4e wants a slice.  There's an interview here with Jen Byrne, their "Development Director for Justice".  Will the bidders offer suicidal discounts, as they did with the Work Programme?  Probably not.  But at least now attention is being paid to some of the shortcomings of flogging off public services.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

What would I do?

Since reading this excoriating article by Polly Toynbee in yesterday's Guardian I've been asking myself how I would react if I was still working in the welfare-to-work system.  It's many, many years since I worked for a year as a teenager in what was then the Labour Exchange; but only a few years since I worked on the New Deal contracts.  There has always been a "sanctions" system.  If you weren't available for work or actively seeking work, you lost your benefits.  But it took Iain Duncan Smith to introduce a reign of terror and direct staff to throw as many people as possible into destitution.
Toynbee says that jobcentre staff are "mostly decent people", and I would agree.  So what do you do, as a decent person, if you find yourself caught up in this?  One strategy is to make sure the facts get out there, like the "regular 'deep throat' correspondent" who has described to her how, "You park your conscience at the door".
Part of me thinks I couldn't stay in the job.  But walking out isn't that easy, unless you can walk straight into another job (which is unlikely these days).  You wouldn't get any benefits for a very long time; and when you were finally eligible to sign on you would have to go to the jobcentre.  Not much of an option if you've been loudly blowing the whistle meanwhile.  So do you stick it out and try not to become part of the culture?  That, according to the informant, leads quickly to losing your job.
It is horribly easy to become part of the culture when something as wicked as this is going on.  You start by dehumanising those you deal with.  These are not unfortunate people who deserve support and consideration.  They are idle scroungers.  All of them.  That's what you're being told, and what the propaganda has been telling you for years.  They are not part of society, as you are, not "hard-working families".  So if you treat them like rubbish and they react badly, they just confirm your opinion.  History is littered with such treatment of minority groups who have been made scapegoats for other people's sins.
So I don't know what I would do.  But I do know where the responsibility for this misery lies.  And it's not just on Iain Duncan Smith, guilty as he is.  It's on David Cameron, who appointed him and keeps him in his job, presumably because he approves of what he's doing.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

It wasn't me, it was him

The Public Accounts Committee has published its report on Universal Credit.  It's pretty damning.  There's a comprehensive account in the Guardian.  Since then, there has been a concerted attempt by Conservative MPs to place the blame squarely on Robert Devereux, the Permanent Secretary at the DWP and the accounting officer for the project.
The Times said this morning that Iain Duncan Smith had tried to get Tory members of the committee to blame Devereux.  That's been denied.  The report doesn't blame individuals, but Margaret Hodge said this morning that the responsibility was from the top down.  Since then I've heard three different Tories blame the civil servants.  Francis Maude was driven to explicitly exonerating IDS.  He commissioned the review in 2012, says Maude, which identified the problems; and he described him as "visionary".
Whatever happened to ministerial accountability?  Younger readers won't be aware that there was a time when the ministers took responsibility and resigned even when the disaster clearly wasn't their fault.  Not now.  But if Devereux does go, he will be free to speak.  That might worry Duncan Smith.
Many people have asked why IDS is still in his job.  Surely his track record should have got him reshuffled to the back benches ages ago.  My feeling is that IDS is so hated, so much the focus of people's anger at the cruelty of the welfare "reforms", that it's better for Cameron to leave him in place and let him soak it all up than to put someone else in the firing line.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

"I don't believe it"

There are two big stories to look at today.  First let's look at:

The latest sanctions figures have, at last, been published.  Between October 2012 and June 2013 they show a rise of 6% on the same period a year before, to 580,000.  Think about that - more than half a million.  The BBC website explains the new rules, and says that 53% of the decisions were at the lowest level, up to 13 weeks, for such failures as not attending an appointment.  Then it says that about 1 in 5 were for failing to keep an appointment with an adviser.  Esther McVey is trotted out to speak for the DWP, saying that sanctions were only used against those who were "wilfully rejecting support for no good reason".
In another piece the BBC's Sean Clare looks at "Life when the Jobcentre says you broke the rules".  It brings out some of the absurdities and injustices of the system, with several horror stories.  The CAB is quoted as saying that they've seen a 64% rise in people coming to them because of sanctions.  The PCS union, whose members have to administer the regime, says, "There's no question that there is an overarching pressure to enforce the sanctions regime as strictly as possible."  The DWP, of course "flatly denies" this.  But the article has stories which cannot be brushed aside in this way.

BBC Radio 4 did a "File on 4" programme yesterday on the Work Programme, which gives me my title for this post.  It seems that Esther McVey has rapidly absorbed her boss's approach to uncomfortable facts; three times her response was to say that she didn't believe it.
The programme started in Eastbourne, where unemployment is a lot lower than the national average, but the local MP Stephen Lloyd (a Lib Dem) is angry at the number of people who have done their 2-year stint on the WP and been failed by it.  One 47-year-old man said that there was no respect and he was treated like a child.  A woman said she'd seen her advisor only once a month.
The WP providers there are Avanta and G4S.  One older woman who had a good experience (and found a job) through a sub-contractor of G4S was interviewed.  But the programme then turned to Richard Johnson, formerly of Ingeus (didn't he work for Serco too?).  He said that the quality of the contract was deteriorating because case-loads were now up to 240 per adviser.  McVey said she didn't believe it.  The official figure is 80 - 140.  And, she said, people can make a complaint.
The point which emerged was that of the just under 2.5 million who are unemployed, 900,000 have been out of work for a year or more and these, along with those with medical problems, are not being helped.  A consultant, a chap called Grimes, said that the sanctions against the worst-performing providers (the 5% "market shift") are inadequate.  The DWP should remove their contracts altogether, but the providers know that this is not going to happen.
The attachment fees are due to end in April 2014.  Johnson spoke about the discounts of 30% or more offered by some of the providers when they bid.  These are back-loaded to years 4 and 5 (i.e. at this point the providers will get 30% less for outcomes) on the assumption by the providers that the government would never let this happen.  The contracts, he said, are not viable at this price.  Deloitte's, who partnered with Ingeus, are now trying to sell their shares, and Johnson thinks it's because they understand the implications of the discounts.  "I don't believe that", said McVey.  She thinks Deloitte's want out because they are doing very well.
Turning to those on ESA, the programme highlighted a man who had been sent to Triage Central.  In 7 visits he saw an advisor only once and got no help at all.  He said that the emphasis was on what he was doing wrong.  Disability Rights UK said that the Work Programme isn't working for disabled people, and a 90% failure rate is not acceptable.  Once again, McVey said, "I don't believe it."
More or less the last word came from Grimes, who said that the long-term unemployed were at the back of the queue and moving backwards.

Lots to comment on, I think.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

What is going on at the DWP?

There's a blog post being circulated which I'm happy to pass on.  You can read it all here, under the heading, "Just when you thought Iain Duncan Smith could not stoop any lower ...."  There are a number of issues which arise from it.  The most obvious is the tone of IDS's letter.  Remember that he's writing to a constituent.  But I'm also struck by the fact that this poor woman had to go to court to get what she was entitled to and, although she won her case, it wasn't enough.  IDS or his department appealed against the decision twice, and are now appealing to get her sent out of the country.  It's hard to know whether, or to what extent, Duncan Smith has any personal involvement in these decisions.  But it suggests, once again, a culture of never taking no for an answer.  If you don't like a ruling that says you're wrong, keep on appealing it; it's not your money you're spending, after all.  And the rights and plight of the individual concerned are irrelevant.
You might also notice that IDS refers to the lady as a "customer" of his department.  This is a very strange and inappropriate usage, but is perhaps indicative of his ability to put all transactions in commercial terms.  If we really were "customers" we could demand a much better service or take our custom elsewhere.

I'm posting this because of another case of unforgivable delays which was highlighted on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning.  A man who has terminal cancer has been left without his benefits for many months because of delays, untruths and sheer incompetence.  Macmillan Cancer Support, the organisation which brought this case to light, says that many people are in this position.  We were reminded that the average delay is about 9 weeks.  Does that account for much of the growth in food bank usage?  But the response from the DWP is as dismissive and arrogant as always, criticising Macmillan for exaggerating.
What possible excuse can there be for routinely leaving people destitute for months?  Is it a deliberate ploy to deter people from claiming at all?  Or is the intention to boost the profits of the pay-day lenders?  Maybe it's part of the running-down of the department so that its functions can be outsourced.

Friday, 1 November 2013

How quickly they forget

Just a quick Friday afternoon post, inspired by an article in the Telegraph I saw when I was browsing through the news feeds.  It's written by Sophy Ridge, who apparently is the political correspondent of Sky News.  Imagine my surprise when up popped a photo of Emma Harrison, A4e's owner and erstwhile chair.  Harrison is one of a number of female "tsars" which the government has appointed, usually pointlessly, when it should be promoting women to genuine positions of power, says Ms Ridge.  But she gets it wrong about Harrison.  She writes: "David Cameron appointed her as his 'Troubled Families Champion', tasked with turning around the lives of 5,000 households and helping to get parents back into work.  Fast-forward to February 2012, when the police announced they were investigating alleged fraud by A4e employees, and Ms Harrison was forced to resign from the post."
Well, no.  It was the fact that she had paid herself £8.6 million in one year which caused the furore and forced her resignation.  But that was getting on for two years ago, so one can't expect a journalist to remember that far back.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Supreme Court ruling

It sparked a lot of argument yesterday.  What had the Supreme Court actually ruled?  A lot of people thought that the DWP would have to repay any money they took away in sanctions while the regime was illegal.  But no, the retrospective legislation took care of that.  There was even confusion about who had appealed the High Court ruling, and on what grounds.
The best article in the press was, naturally, in the Guardian.  Joshua Rozenberg used to be the BBC's legal expert, and knows what he's talking about.  He points out that was Iain Duncan Smith who appealed.  He had no need to, because the retrospective legislation was already in operation.  The original decision was that the whole basis of the workfare schemes was unlawful because i) it hadn't been put to Parliament and ii) the information given to claimants was inadequate.  That's what Smith appealed.  And he lost.  The Supreme Court upheld that decision.  But, as Rozenberg points out, Smith's immediate response was: "We are very pleased that the supreme court today unanimously upheld our right to require those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance to take part in programmes which will help get them into work."  Rozenberg picks up the "very pleased" and comments, "Pleased that it had lost an unnecessary appeal at no small cost to the taxpayer?"  He quotes the ruling:"...it is rather unattractive for the executive to be taking up court time and public money to establish that a regulation is valid, when it has already taken up parliamentary time to enact legislation which retroactively validates the regulation."
To be fair (it pains me to say this) the lawyers for Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson did make a cross-appeal about the legality of workfare, and lost that, so IDS could claim that that's what he was talking about.  But that's almost irrelevant.  Esther McVey (who has, in a very short time, become very irritating) was trotted out to repeat IDS's spurious claim and confuse the issue.
On the subject of workfare generally; the government has to maintain the fiction that it is not work, it's training, work experience or whatever, but not work.  Because that would have to be paid.  No court in this country is going to go against that.  It might be that the only recourse is the European Court of Human Rights.
A final thought.  Could we start a petition to impeach Iain Duncan Smith?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

That fraud case, a report and a couple of memos

First, there's an update on the court case against the nine former A4e employees charged with fraud.  They were in court again yesterday and have all been bailed to return for further hearings at the Crown Court, seven of them on 25 November and two on 3 February.

Second, there's a report out from the Manchester CAB, entitled Punishing Poverty?  A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants.  It can be accessed from here.  It's packed with information which IDS, Freud and the rest should be compelled to read and answer questions on.  One interesting fact:- in 2009 the number of claimants sanctioned was 139,000, in line with previous years; by 2011 it had jumped to 508,000.  What the report doesn't mention is that we still haven't had the 2012 figures, and it's becoming ever clearer why not.  Other points to note include the fact that under Universal Credit the "hardship payments" when someone is being punished become effectively loans, to be repaid from any future benefits.  When did that little gem slip in?  There's really too much to summarise in the report, but it backs up what many of us have been saying for some time.

Third, there are a couple of what the DWP calls "live running memos" which are of interest.  One refers to changes and clarifications in provider guidance, and includes under "Raising a compliance doubt" the statement that "providers should be putting the contact details of the referring advisor on the WP08 referral."  How odd (or perhaps not) that some have been doing it anonymously.  The other memo is more serious in its implications, and can be found here.  There has been a vigorous campaign to persuade people to withhold their consent to data sharing by refusing to sign the consent form.  The aim, as the DWP recognises, is to prevent the WP provider from claiming a job outcome fee.  Not any more.  They have been pushing through the legal authority to contact employers without the client's permission.  They say it's "to improve the delivery of our interventions".  If you think you can still thwart this by not telling the Jobcentre where you're working, or even why you're signing off, I suspect the DWP can get the information through the tax office.  It's another instance of this government regarding data protection, or any other legal rights, as not applying to those dependent on benefits.

Monday, 28 October 2013


Having read this article in the Express, "Despair" was the only title I could think of for this post.  I remember my own long spell of unemployment in the 1990s, and wonder how I would have coped with this vicious, dehumanising regime.  And I suspect I would not have survived.  I had been working for nearly 30 years; I had paid plenty of tax and National Insurance.  Now it was time for me to claim the benefits to which I was entitled, while I tried everything to get a job (which I eventually did).  I never allowed myself to feel humiliated; I had done nothing wrong, and life was difficult enough without being denied any self-respect.  If it was happening now - I think I would be looking into the abyss.
Some of you who comment here and have been passed back to the Jobcentre after wasting two years on the WP, have already experienced this "claimant commitment" demand, which officially came into force today where UC is being implemented, and are bemused as to how it's going to be possible to meet it.  Others have asked what "commitment" is being made by Jobcentres and government to help them.  The article gives us no answer.  "The radical plan is the idea of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith who said a job search should be a full time occupation in itself.  The unemployed will be expected to fill their 'working' weeks searching for work, attending interviews, training, assessments and workshops.  If they deviate from their signed commitment, their benefits will be stopped for 13 weeks for a first offence, then 26 weeks and then 3 years."  That's the Express's words in bold, not the DWP's.  But they strike a chill, don't they?  Criminalised for something trivial.  What the DWP's infamous anonymous spokesperson does say is rather puzzling: "Those claiming out-of-work benefits will be expected to dedicate their working week not only to searching for work but also to invest in training and the skills necessary to make getting a job easier."  Apart from lousy grammar, what does this mean?  That the unemployed person has to "invest" in training and skills?

My only advice on how to cope with this is:
 i) keep a detailed diary, not only to prove that you're doing what is demanded, but to show to yourself and others just how punitive and demeaning this regime is.  Start a blog about your experience if you're in a position to do so.  Writing down your thoughts can be therapeutic in itself.
ii) always remember that they cannot rob you of your self-respect unless you let them.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Another fine mess

We all know by now that another shambles has occurred in Iain Duncan Smith's welfare "reforms".  People on Disability Living Allowance are to be assessed for its replacement, the PIP.  But instead of it going live all over the country, as it was meant to do, it will only happen for now in parts of the country.  Nothing wrong with that, say ministers, we intended to do that all along, and anyway, better to go slowly and get it right.
Now, there are two contractors involved in this, Capita and Atos.  In one report I saw that the places which are going ahead with the PIPs assessments are those in which Capita has the contracts.  And we know that Atos was struggling to get everything in place because many of the proposed sub-contractors who were listed on its bid documents have pulled out.  Does this mean that the scheme can't go ahead where Atos is the contractor because they're not ready?  I don't know, but it seems likely.  The DWP won't want to blame Atos because, as with all outsourcing contracts, the question would be asked, "Why did you give them the business?"
IDS seems to be keeping his head down this weekend.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The hate campaign goes on

The Express's disgusting hate campaign against the unemployed continued today with a story which has so many holes in it that not even the editor should have believed it.  Read it carefully before continuing.
Do you see what I mean?  This bloke has a job agency in Worcester.  Now, the idea of these agencies is that they sign up people onto their books so that, when a company contacts them for personnel, they've got clients who they can contact and use, even at short notice.  The agencies then get paid for supplying the labour.  This chap, Danny James, hadn't done that.  When he got an urgent order for 50 people to man a food packing line that same night, he went to the Jobcentre.  (Would James have given the agency commission to JCP?)  The Jobcentre, obviously, couldn't help.  A spokesperson said, "The very short timescale given by the agency and the need for jobseekers to be available to work the night shift, that same day, meant that we were unable to help on this occasion."  So Mr James had to fall back on doing what an agency is paid to do in the first place - phone his own contacts.  He could only find ten.  Now he's ranting on Facebook about people "scrounging from us taxpayers".  And the Express has deliberately misrepresented people who were unwilling to do a single shift at a few hours' notice; people who would lose money by doing so, because the system penalises them for signing off, doing one shift and signing back on again.
But facts don't matter to the Express, or to its owner, Richard Desmond.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Getting ahead of the game

We reported recently that A4e were happy to publicise the fact that they had a presence at all the party conferences this year.  The latest edition of Private Eye reveals that last year, 2012, they were there with a very specific purpose - to lobby on the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts (that's the outsourcing of the probation services).  Remember that lobbying means getting access to the decision-makers to push for the business you want.  And last year what A4e wanted was to change the contracts to reduce the initial risk carried by the private companies and reduce the penalties for missing targets.  Along with other WP providers, they asked for meetings with Ministry of Justice ministers.  A senior civil servant, Jenny Giblett, advised against this meeting.  It wouldn't look good, given the "reputational damage" suffered by A4e over the fraud allegations.  Chris Grayling and two other ministers heeded the advice.  But A4e (or their lobbyist) took advantage of the Lib Dem conference to get at Lord McNally, another minister, who agreed to a meeting.  The civil servants were in a bit of a panic, and wanted to ensure that McNally was told exactly why it was a bad idea.  But the meeting went ahead; A4e gained access ahead of its rivals.
It's not clear whether they got any advantage from this.  But it's revealing that government thought that the company was so tainted that the normal lobbyists' contacts should be avoided.

Monday, 14 October 2013

A new way with figures

I heard an item on the lunchtime news programme which had me laughing in disbelief.  One of the housing associations came up with figures to show that the bedroom tax was not raising the sort of money the DWP insisted it would, because people are moving to the private rented where rents (and therefore housing benefit) are higher, rather than paying the tax and staying where they are.  They got a university department to go through the figures and produce a report.  The university confirmed it.  So today Esther McVey, the new minister, was interviewed about this.  Her response?  To rubbish the report as not true because it was based on figures provided by an organisation which had a financial interest.  The interviewer, clearly gob-smacked, pressed her.  What was not true?  All she could say was that the DWP had modelled all this before it was put in place.  But what was not true?  She repeated the canard that the housing association had a financial interest in providing false figures.  She's obviously settling in fast and absorbing the culture of the DWP.  When the figures come from government, distort them, lie about them or just refuse to publish them; if they come from outside government, say they're lies.  Brilliant!

The Indymedia website carries an article which confirms that A4e is putting in a bid for the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts, effectively privatising the probation service.  It's not a surprise.  They need contracts to survive.  But the model is the same as that of the Work Programme; payment by results with a three-tier structure of primes and sub-contractors.  We'll see whether A4e makes it through the PQQ stage, but there's no reason to think they won't.

PS:  Here's the Independent's take on the housing report and a comment from McVey.  This one is a little different but no more sensible.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Weekend round-up

A4e was at all the party conferences this year, as usual.  They don't record what interest they drummed up amongst the Lib Dems or Labour, but describe on their website the "event" they hosted in Manchester for the Tories.  They've had to amend the story in the last couple of days - it was "former minister" Mark Hoban who led the praise for 6 A4e "customers" (I do hate that word) who have found jobs through the WP.  Apparently 40 people turned up.  Now, as I've always said, I'm happy for anybody who gets work, with or without the help of A4e.  But it seems slightly over-optimistic for A4e to be lobbying just at the point when they've lost market share for getting poor results.

There was a little-noticed piece on the BBC website yesterday about the poor quality of prison education.  Ofsted has been very critical about current standards, and it's pointed out that prison education and training is outsourced to private companies.  No companies are named, but A4e has several contracts.

BBC Radio 4's "The Report" programme last night looked at the state of Universal Credit.  There was nothing which hadn't already been in the press, but the programme pulled it all together to show how the project went off the rails.  Around £200m has been completely wasted, there are no effective financial controls, and there is no chance that it will come in "on time and on budget", as IDS insists it will.  UC is being rolled out to 6 more jobcentres, but it's still limited to new claims by single people with no dependants, on JSA only and with no complications.  It was pointed out that you can't do a change of circumstances, or even sign off, online.  You have to phone an 0845 number, at your own expense.  The whole thing is supposed to be completed by 2017, but as the reporter said, whether IDS would still be in post by then is doubtful.

That dismal excuse for a newspaper, the Express, gleefully reported a survey which purports to show that a majority of people think that benefits claimants "should find a job or work harder".  Surprisingly, a lot of the comments under the article are not supportive of the Express's stance.  For the actual figures, read a better article on a website here.  But all such polls are suspect.  We don't know the sample size, but we do know that sampling methods tend to exclude the poorest people, and that would certainly skew the results here.  Of course, the government is jubilant, and Labour is flummoxed about how to respond.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Changing faces

So Mark Hoban has gone.  He made absolutely no impact at the DWP, but apparently thinks he did.  He told his local paper in Hampshire, "I have turned the Work Programme around and I have delivered on what I was asked to achieve."  He is replaced by Esther McVey, who has an interesting background.  Aged 46, she's from Liverpool; solidly middle class (a family business in demolition), a law degree, and a career in television before founding her own business.  She only came into Parliament in 2010.  No doubt Cameron thinks she will have the presentational skills which Iain Duncan Smith so conspicuously lacks.  Also joining thee DWP as Minister of State is Mike Penning, a 56-year-old with a similar background to McVey (except he chose the army rather than television).
More interesting, perhaps, is the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet, with the ineffectual Liam Byrne being replaced by Rachel Reeves as shadow work and pensions minister.  Reeves is not a great TV performer, but she knows her stuff and is a formidable intellect.  Don't expect IDS ever to debate with her publicly.
None of this makes any immediate difference to government policy, unfortunately.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

More dodgy figures from shameless IDS

Iain Duncan Smith is obviously unrepentant.  He was taken to task, you remember, for coming out with dodgy figures to justify his benefits cap, but said he believed it so it must be true.  He still hasn't faced the Work and Pensions Select Committee to answer for this (although his civil servants did).  Now he's doing it again.  The odious Express tells us that "16,500 find jobs after clamp on benefits" in a headline, and goes on: "Tough but fair reforms to Britain's broken benefits system have helped 16,500 claimants back into work, new figures reveal."  The sceptical may already perceive that there's something wrong here.  What's the actual connection between this nice round number and any specific benefits change?  Well, "The people living in potentially-benefit capped households were helped to find the posts by Jobcentre Plus over 18 months."  Now, this is the sort of distortion that the statistics people got cross about before.  There is no proven connection between the number getting jobs (who may or may not have been "helped" by JCP) and the potential for household benefits to be capped.  Yet the article proceeds on the assumption that the cap is making the idle get a job.  "The figures, revealed exclusively to the Daily Express, showed that Mr Duncan Smith's promise to 'make work pay' is starting to change a culture where some lifelong layabouts viewed benefits as a limitless cash machine."
Surely it's time for the select committee to do its job and hold IDS to account.  As well as the dodgy statistics, there's his failure to publish any data on sanctions.  If Dame Anne Begg and her committee are not concerned about this, what is their purpose?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

After the Work Programme

I mean the title in two senses.  First there's what the government has announced about the fate of those who have been failed by the WP.  I don't need to say much.  We've all heard George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and Cameron spouting garbage in the last couple of days about things which are already happening.  The latest plan is to pilot "mandatory attendance centres".  IDS is almost honest about the point of these.  They will get lots of people to sign off, because they are working in the black economy, or trip people up very quickly so that they are sanctioned.  Actually, one of the pilots is for people who haven't yet started on the WP, so presumably it's about catching out those the Jobcentre suspects are working.  There is no word on who will run these centres.  Jobcentre staff will not be queuing up; the prospect of containing some very angry people for 35 hours a week, with nothing to do, has little appeal.  Let's hope they have a direct phone line to the police.  For many of the other people who have flunked the WP, a high-viz jacket awaits so that they can do "community work".  This could well be in Poundland or Tesco.

The second sense of the title is looking to the end of the current contracts.  Now, if you wanted some advice on a new model Work Programme, would you ask one of the current providers who has just been penalised for performing very badly?   Not if you have any sense.  But, undaunted by their own reputation, A4e has published their recommendations.  So what do they suggest?

  • existing contracts should be extended "for well-performing providers" but "the re-tendering of the contracts of poorly-performing providers".  How odd.  As things stand, this wouldn't exactly benefit A4e.  Long term, though, it would be disastrous, concentrating the contracts and the money in fewer and fewer hands.
  • "the most disadvantaged jobseekers" should be referred to the WP from "day one".  These lucky people would, apparently, be selected by the Jobcentres following an initial assessment.  While this is being implemented they want all young people and all over-50s to be referred as soon as they are unemployed.  This is certainly attractive to companies like A4e.  Those most likely to get work are those who have been out of a job for the shortest time.  So A4e would be able to claim all those job outcomes without doing anything at all.  The argument about "the most disadvantaged", however, can only make sense if the companies are offering anything the Jobcentre can't.  Two years of the WP strongly suggests that they are not, and will not.
  • the payments system should be changed to reflect the "scale of barriers" clients face.
  • some groups should be allowed to stay on the WP longer.
  • there should be partial outcome payments for steps such as part-time (under 16 hours) jobs.
  • the DWP should lead a drive to get employers to take on the long-term unemployed.  Well, that was supposed to be what the WP primes were doing, and have largely failed to do.  
  • WP clients (A4e always uses the word "customers, but I won't) should be able to access New Enterprise Allowance funding.
  • personal budgets should be introduced.  The paragraphs on this are so jargon-ridden as to be opaque, but it boils down to letting the provider have access to funds to address the perceived needs of the hardest-to-help.
All these recommendations are interesting, but wrong.  The Work Programme is an expensive failure, and the solution is not to give the companies more money and power.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

"For Hardworking People"

That's the slogan for this year's Conservative Party Conference - although they're all forgetting and referring to "hardworking families".  So they're not for the single, the pensioner, the sick, the disabled, etc., etc.  We already know that the latest kicking of welfare claimants is that all those who are long-term unemployed will be subjected to a form of workfare.  They know that they're onto a winner with the electorate.  But it's doubtful whether they will elaborate on exactly how it's to be done.  Remember that the government currently refuses to disclose which firms and organisations take free labour from MWA and the like.  If lots more people are to be offered for free labour there will need to be more companies involved.  Will we be allowed to know which ones?  (Short answer - no.)
The media continue to ignore the fact that the government refuses to publish the numbers of those who have been "sanctioned".  I found this link (in a comment on the Conservative Home website); "A Selection of Especially Stupid Benefit Sanctions".  All of them are sourced, and a lot come from MPs.  Essential reading for Iain Duncan Smith, one would have thought.
For many churches, today is Harvest Festival; and many of them will be donating the produce to their local food banks.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Nine charged with fraud

It's all over the media by now.  The Slough fraud allegations have dragged on a long time, but now nine A4e former employees have been charged with a total of 60 counts of forgery and conspiracy to defraud.  According to the BBC they were working on a programme called "Inspire to Aspire", a local initiative very much like the Work Programme.  They will appear in court on 14 October.
Both the Guardian and the Independent front their pieces with a photo of Emma Harrison.  Curiously, the Independent says that "prosecutors have not been asked to consider charges" against her personally.  It also quotes the head of fraud at the Crown Prosecution Service, who describes A4e as "a social purpose company"; we thought that particular label had been buried.
The company did discover and report the fraudulent activity themselves - they had to.  And they will be glad to get the case out of the way and say it couldn't happen again.

Work Programme data

The figures have been published.  There's a summary here or a detailed analysis here.  Unless you're a glutton for statistics, it takes some ploughing through, but one significant point is that only 18 out of 40 contracts achieved their minimum performance targets, and the performance for ESA claimants is terrible.  I'll wait for someone else to analyse these figures properly and extract the meat, but it's much as we expected - not very good.
As several readers have already pointed out, A4e is one of the companies being penalised for poor performance, as the BBC reports.  But all that happens is that they see a small cut in the number of referrals in three areas.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


The latest batch of Work Programme statistics is due for release on Thursday, 26 September.  I don't expect anything startling.  And I don't expect the media to take an interest.  The significant numbers will be the outcomes for the long-term jobless, and the "sustainment" payments.  The latter will give an indication of whether providers can cope financially with the contracts.  Comparisons between providers also matter.  We can expect the headline, from both the DWP and the ERSA, to be raw numbers, which tell us nothing.

There's another important set of figures which the government has obviously decided to bury - the data on sanctions.  They were due out last May but the DWP waffled about quality issues with the data.  Then there were indications that the delay might be down to the hiatus caused by the high court ruling and the need to legalise what had been declared illegal.  Then there was a hint that an announcement would be made in August.  Still nothing.  But we do have an announcement that there will be "an independent review of benefit sanctions".  Don't get your hopes up.  This is only to look at the "clarity of information" given to JSA claimants about the process.  It's to be carried out by a think-tanker, a theorist called Matthew Oakley.  I wonder if he will talk to anyone who has been punished.  A comment by Mark Hoban is insulting: "It is important that Jobseekers know exactly what is expected of them when they apply for Jobseeker's Allowance, and that they risk having their benefits sanctioned if they fail to play by the rules." [My italics]  Perhaps it's a game to you, Mr Hoban, but not to those who suddenly find themselves penniless.  There is so much about this regime that should be examined by a qualified independent person.  He might, for instance, consider a story in Sunday's Observer which shows that one in three homeless people on JSA have been penalised, compared to about 3% of jobseekers overall.  But this review is simply a cosmetic exercise.

That last story, the Observer article, ends in the now familiar way, with a quote from that shadowy figure, the DWP spokesman.  This person always makes political statements of dubious accuracy, but is never named.  Is this a civil servant doing his master's bidding?  Or a political aide to whom IDS has passed the buck?  Either way, if the journalists can't get a comment directly from those responsible, i.e. the politicians, they should refuse to publish this anonymous nonsense.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

"A4e found guilty of racial discrimination"

That's the headline of the story in the Guardian.  No one else has picked it up (yet) but it's perhaps indicative of deeper problems.
In the Bradford office of A4e three managers were alleged to have failed to follow proper procedures.  Only one of the three, Rohim Ullah, was subjected to investigation and sacked.  And he was the only one who was black.  He took his case to a tribunal and won.  A4e has been ordered to pay £50,000 in compensation.
It's not major, perhaps.  But, as the Guardian points out, A4e has been paid £345m by us since 2010 for its "employment services", so we are entitled to question the culture inside it.  If A4e discriminates where its staff are involved, what about its clients?

Sunday, 15 September 2013


"Contractorisation" - a hideous word coined by David Cameron when he was questioned recently by a parliamentary committee.  He was asked about Chris Grayling's statement that companies which are guilty of malpractice or gross failure could be ruled out of future contracts.  (Think Serco and G4S.)  Would this happen?  Cameron was vague, but said he was in favour of more "contractorisation".  Of course he was vague.  Because it won't happen.  For one thing it would be a legal minefield, and for another, who else is there?  He was also asked about the timetable for bringing in Universal Credit, and was equally vague, leading people to conclude that he and the government know it's not remotely on schedule, and only Iain Duncan Smith thinks it is.
With the start of the party conference season, we can see very clearly that there is consensus among the main parties about welfare and outsourcing.  Clegg waffled this morning about "making work pay" and dodged a question about the deepening poverty of those on benefits.  This is the Tory attitude as well; they believe that they have won the argument.  Tales of hardship can be brushed aside, because a majority of the electorate have accepted the propaganda.  Michael Gove caused a bit of a fuss by saying that he thought people who used food banks were just bad at managing their money.  Various Labour MPs are willing to put a different point of view, but their party would not alter anything the Tories have done.  Nor would they call a halt to the outsourcing.
Cameron, Gove, Clegg et al are not necessarily bad people.  They have good intentions towards people whose lives they cannot begin to understand.  When they are confronted with the truth they can't accept it.  And now that the economic figures aren't quite as bad as they were, they can proclaim that they were right.  It's grim.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Not working enough

It is fundamental to the government's approach to welfare to believe that claiming benefits is a choice people make.  They call it "languishing on benefits" and describe it as a "lifestyle choice".  When it dawned on them that most people on benefits were actually in work, and were able to claim tax credits because their pay was so abysmally low, or because they were working part-time - well, that must be a choice, too.  Little noticed some time ago was the announcement that in order to claim working tax credits people would have to be working 30 hours a week.  Clearly, and explicitly, the delusion was that people working fewer hours than that could find some more somewhere.  And now comes the plan to deal with those "not working enough".  Last Saturday's Guardian had a chilling article about it.  "People earning between £330 and £950 a month - just under the rate of the national minimum wage for a 35-hour week - could be mandated to attend jobcentre meetings where their working habits will be examined as part of the universal credit programme."  This makes perfect sense in the government's thinking.  UC will ensure that "work pays"; so people must be pressured into working more.  And if you're not making enough effort, you can be stripped of your benefits.  There will be seven categories of claimants, apparently, including those "too sick to work" and those "too committed to work" (which would include lone parents), as well as those "not working enough".  The language of the documents seen by the Guardian includes horrible phrases like "the claimant journey".   The TUC has responded with the obvious objections, including forcing people to live in constant fear and insecurity.
All of this is called "in-work conditionality", and the Resolution Foundation has published a report on the implications.  It's well worth reading.  One point which has been raised by many people is that the resources simply aren't there to implement this.  More contracts, perhaps?  The private sector is already cashing in.  A system called Worktrack is set to replace Universal Jobmatch.  It's a much more sophisticated system - take the tour on their website.  But then look at the pricing - between £500 and £600 per adviser license, with discounts for multiple advisers.  And consider that it is extremely unlikely that it will be voluntary for the client to sign up for this.

One company's opinion on how to make the Work Programme better has been published.  G4S, like all the providers, has been invited to submit ideas for the "next generation" of the WP.  It's not encouraging for anyone who wants to see an end to this useless scheme.  Naturally, the providers want to "reform" it in their own financial interests.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Concerns about the Work Programme - implications for the providers

Back in May the Work and Pensions Select Committee reported its concerns about the Work Programme.  The DWP has now responded.  You can read a useful summary on the Indus Delta site.  It's all interesting, but there are two points which are particularly relevant for the providers.

1) Market share shift.  This is the penalty providers are supposed to pay if they fail; a shifting of some of their share of referrals to other providers.  The committee wanted this shift to be "carefully and transparently applied" and wanted to know what work had been done on its likely impact.  The reply is that the DWP has already "adjusted the shares according to performance levels over 12 months".  So who has lost and who has gained?  There wasn't a great deal of difference in performance among all the providers.

2) Attachment fees.  These are due to stop in April 2014.  The committee thought they should be retained beyond that date "to protect service delivery".  The reply is non-committal: "The department will monitor the success of incentives under the payment by results model and make changes if it deems them necessary."  Now, this appears to mean that if the incentives are not successful, i.e. the providers don't make enough profit, the attachment fees could be retained.  And that's crazy.

One other "concern" will interest those who are coming to the end of their stint on the WP.  The committee wanted to ensure that people who hadn't got work should be provided with specialist support or "allowed to extend their time on the Work Programme".  (They didn't, apparently, see any irony in this.)  The response is that the Mandatory Intervention Regime (a phrase that's new to me) is already dealing with this, and that "post-work programme support remains flexible and tailored to individual needs."  So you've no need to worry.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The shambles that is Universal Credit

I really have nothing much to say.  Iain Duncan Smith has been all over the news today because of the National Audit Office's report into how Universal Credit is going, and we've said it all on here before.  The only thing which strikes me is how keen IDS has been to blame everybody except himself.  Mainly, it's been the civil servants being made to carry the can.
I know people want to comment on all this, so go ahead.  But don't go overboard.