Thursday, 28 February 2013

What outsourcing did to charities

We learned on Monday that another charity, Sue Ryder, has pulled out of the Mandatory Work Activity scheme.  See the article on the Civil Society website.  They've done so after a sustained attack by the Boycott Workfare campaign.  The PDSA has also withdrawn from the scheme.  The first comment under the article, by Linda Bush of Inspirit, is an excellent summary of what's wrong with the notion of compulsory volunteering.
Sue Ryder and the PDSA are both charities in the old sense of the word.  But many charities morphed into "the voluntary sector", which then became "the third sector".  The transformation happened as the Blair government began to outsource everything in sight, and many organisations which had been formed as groups of volunteers working on particular areas of need changed into professionally run outfits dependent on contracts from local or national government.  They were not, at first, competing with the private or public sectors, but that began to change.  The voluntary sector was involved with New Deal from the outset.  As that evolved into a wholly outsourced business and then became Flexible New Deal, there was nothing to distinguish these organisations from the private sector other than the fact that didn't have shareholders.
Meanwhile, other specialist organisations, dependent on funding from government or from councils, found that the money was being diverted to the Work Programme, and to keep going they had to sign up as sub-contractors of the primes, the private sector.  It has worked for some, but been disastrous for others.
And what of the remaining charities?  They still had to raise funds for their work from the general public, and that meant using volunteers.  But increasingly they have been used as a convenient place to put people who are being made to work.  They've taken people sentenced to community service.  They've taken people on "work placements" under welfare-to-work schemes.  And now they are taking people who are being compelled to work for their benefits.
Many charities and voluntary sector organisations need to take a long, hard look at what they are doing and why.  The whole outsourcing agenda has changed them.  Has it been a change for the better?

Sunday, 24 February 2013

A difficult time for IDS

It can't be easy for Iain Duncan Smith at the moment.
His party spent 13 years in opposition, planning what they would do when they finally got their hands on power again.  Several of them decided to become experts (in their own eyes, at least) on particular subjects, and developed grandiose ideas about how to "reform" that area; Lansley with the NHS (he didn't last long); Gove with education (still there but making a colossal mess); and of course IDS with work and pensions.  It was particularly important for IDS.  Having failed as party leader, he was determined that his political legacy was going to be the "reform" of the entire welfare system.  But it's not going well.  One after another, his plans have hit the rocks.
  • The Work Programme - intended to be the panacea for unemployment, it's been a dismal failure.  £400 million was spent by taxpayers in the first 14 months to achieve nothing. Unless there's been an amazing improvement in recent months, it will have to be changed, but the pressure will increase to scrap it altogether.  All the warning signs were there from the outset, but IDS refused to listen.
  • Work Capability Assessments - causing huge misery.  And now we learn that the number of successful appeals is rising, to 42% in the last quarter.  Yet Atos got part of the contract to do the same job with people on disability benefits.
  • Universal Credit - still on track, apparently, but a new man has been brought in to manage the project.  When the risks were pointed out - that a very large number of people wouldn't be able to cope with it, and there would be a dangerous shambles - IDS refused to listen, claiming that those people would just have to learn.  Now he has had to produce a "framework" to handle the problems, pushing the onus onto local councils.
  • Universal Jobmatch - the super-duper website was going to kill two birds with one stone.  It would collect all the job vacancies into one site, and it would enable JCP and WP advisers to snoop on their clients' activities.  But the website itself is far from perfect, and despite announcing a few months ago that registration and conceding access was going to be compulsory, IDS has had to accept that it isn't possible without a struggle to change the law.
  • Work for your benefit schemes - judged by the appeal court to have been put in place illegally, necessitating a hasty drafting of new regulations whilst IDS insists that no compensation will be paid to people who were punished for not attending these schemes while they were unlawful.  Wrong advice.
  • The Bedroom Tax, or whatever its official name is - warned that it would be Cameron's poll tax, IDS insists that it's fair.  But faced with growing evidence of its unacceptable impact on the disabled, he has directed his people to look at ways of changing the rules.
We were told that Cameron tried to reshuffle IDS away from Work and Pensions, but he refused to go.  He hates to be thwarted or disagreed with over his policies.  His department has made more than 20 formal complaints to the BBC in the last year over "bias" and "inaccuracies".  According to the Telegraph, "Aides say coverage of welfare reforms often feature only the plight of people who will suffer most from the changes, while measures to soften the blow often go unreported."  It goes on, "Over the past few months, Mr Duncan Smith has been particularly angered by the reporting of the housing benefit reforms referred to as 'the bedroom tax' by Labour and the BBC."  Then, "A source said, 'You could look at the BBC’s TV news coverage [of this policy] and think this was a change that would apply only to disabled people.  We have allocated £155 million for local authorities to help soften the blow of the measure, but this never features in the BBC’s news coverage. How is it possible not to think that is biased?'"
Long may the BBC and the rest of the media continue to highlight the failing policies of this man.

Friday, 22 February 2013

The failing Work Programme - the PAC report

It's all over the papers this morning; the report of the Public Accounts Committee into the Work Programme.  We already knew its conclusions, but the various newspaper articles highlight different aspects of it (when they can be bothered to go beyond the press release).  The Telegraph, for instance, reports that some of the companies are in danger of being stripped of their contracts and even of going out of business.  The Guardian points out that all 18 organisations involved have been put on "performance improvement plans", with 7 of them being sent formal warning letters.  Margaret Hodge was also angry that the DWP had published unvalidated data from the ERSA.  We do learn that the next set of performance data is due to be published in March.
It would appear that Richard Johnson, formerly of Serco, is now the go-to person for an opinion on all this.  He was the man who was in charge of WP stuff for Serco, but now that he no longer works for them he's free to criticise.  He said, on the BBC Today Programme this morning, that the design of the contracts made "creaming and parking" inevitable.  I notice that the BBC is asking for experiences of the Work Programme, so perhaps they are planning a proper investigation of the subject.  Let's hope so.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Jonty's "tweets are protected"

Jonty Olliff-Cooper, A4e's Director of Policy and Strategy, seems to have learned his lesson about careless postings on Twitter.  You can't read his tweets now unless you're a "confirmed follower".  We can't know whether he got a rocket from his employer for that offensive exchange (see our post of 9 February), but it's disappointing that journalists, even on Private Eye, missed it, or didn't think it important.

I suppose I must comment on the latest employment figures, but it's wearisome.  We all know that the figures are, if not exactly rigged, at least hiding the truth.  12% of the increase in "jobs" is accounted for by people providing free labour on the various "workfare" schemes - the ONS insists that it has to include them.  We have no idea how many of the people reported to have come off JSA are being sanctioned by being kicked off benefits.  And it all seems at odds with the recent story about Costa Coffee advertising 8 jobs at its new shop in Nottingham and getting 1,701 applications.  (One of the saddest things about that story was that a spokeswoman said that some of the applicants were former managers who were "clearly overqualified for the positions".)  Iain Duncan Smith was heard to say today that the figures showed that the Work Programme was beginning to be effective.  No, they don't.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Shelf-stacking and IDS

Because people clearly want to talk about it, here's a link to the Guardian's account of Iain Duncan Smith's opinions on the Marr show this morning.  As always, the comments under the article say it all, and personally I've nothing to add - but go ahead.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Contracts by the back door?

With the advent of Universal Credit, the government is persuaded of the need to provide help to those who won't be able to deal with it on their own - doing everything online, housing benefit going to the claimant rather than the landlord, etc.  So they've planned a Local Support Services Framework.  The document is here.  It's based on the idea that Local Authorities will do it in partnership with such bodies as housing associations and voluntary bodies, and is full of buzzwords like "pathfinder".  Nowhere does it mention the private sector.  So it isn't excluded.  And I can see nothing to stop a local council deciding to contract out the job to the likes of A4e.  Cynic that I am, I suspect that lobbying is already going on.
Another concern was raised by a recent comment on another post.  A chap who is not on the Work Programme, having recently been in a job, went to his Jobcentre to sign on and found an A4e employee sitting with his JC adviser, reading his personal information.  That was alarming enough.  A conversation followed focussing on his jobsearch skills with the Universal Jobmatch site.  These can't be too bad, since he's recently applied for 50 jobs and secured two interviews.  However, he was told that he would have to attend a "course" with A4e to "sharpen up" his jobsearch skills.  He tried to ascertain whether this was mandatory, and couldn't get a straight answer, but the threat was there.  He gave in, under protest.  What disturbs me about this (aside from the data protection issue) is the possibility that this is another way of giving public money to A4e, since I can't imagine that they're running these "courses" for nothing.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Three more arrests

The BBC is reporting that three more people have been arrested by police in connection with the enquiry into alleged "fraud by misrepresentation" at A4e in Slough.  That brings the total arrested to eleven.  This investigation has been going on for nearly a year.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Mark Hoban interview

I've just watched an entertaining but infuriating interview with Mark Hoban on BBC's Newsight.
It started with a clip from the classic film Metropolis, a scene of mass forced labour.  It was then pointed out that 130,000 people have been "sanctioned" for not taking part in any of the 7 schemes affected by today's court ruling.  A Human Rights barrister said that they may have a right to compensation.  A TUC spokeswoman said that they support good quality work experience schemes, but not unpaid work in return for benefits.
Then the interviewer, Gavin Esler, turned to Mark Hoban and asked why his department was so incompetent.  It was rapidly clear that Hoban wanted to talk only about the vindication of the schemes themselves, not the court ruling.  They don't agree with the court, and want to be able to be flexible and respond quickly.  This is not a major blow, he said, it was "business as usual".  What provision has been made to repay people, Esler asked.  None, they're not going to pay.  (The interview was taking place against a backdrop of a scene of forced labour from Metropolis.)  Esler asked if people like Cait Reilly are workshy.  We offer help, said Hoban, not answering the question.  Then, astonishly, he uttered the phrase "tailored, personalised support".  When Esler put the contrary case, Hoban said that they were "very effective schemes in getting people into work".  I wanted Esler to bring up the DWP's own figures which show just how useless they are, but instead he turned to the Work Programme, and the 3.5% success in its first year.  Hoban repeated the phrase "personalised support".  So all the evidence that the WP offers nothing of the kind can be ignored by this government, and the same old lies can be propagated.
I agree completely with Zoe Williams in her Guardian piece: "All the statistics released about the Work Programme show execrable results, and yet we've heard nothing about penalties, or remaking the contracts, or rethinking the system. There is a creeping sense that this is turning into a cash cow for the private sector, a get-out-clause for the government ("we've spent all this money, if people can't get jobs despite our help, it's because they are inadequate"), and unemployed people will be left at the bottom, ceaselessly harassed by a totally specious narrative in which their laziness beggars a try-hard administration."

"Back-to-work scheme breached laws"

The Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of Cait Reilly's contention that the government's unpaid work schemes are legally flawed.  There's the BBC's report here and the Guardian's here.  The latter says that the  scheme is "in tatters".  But let's not get carried away.
They're unlawful only because of "a lack of basic in  formation given to the unemployed".  They weren't given enough information about the penalties they faced or their rights to appeal.  Tens of thousands of people who have been sanctioned are entitled to "a rebate", but the DWP has said that it won't pay out until "all legal avenues" have been exhausted.  They're going to the Supreme Court.  Which all means that it's not the schemes themselves - MWA and the rest - which are unlawful, just the way the DWP went about it.  And they've already changed the paperwork.
Mark Hoban is cross.  He said: "The court has backed our right to require people to take part in programmes which will help get them into work. It's ridiculous to say this is forced labour. This ruling ensures we can continue with these important schemes.  We are, however, disappointed and surprised at the court's decision on our regulations. There needed to be flexibility so we could give people the right support to meet their needs and get them into a job. We do not agree with the court's judgment and are seeking permission to appeal, but new regulations will be tabled to avoid any uncertainty."

PS:  There's an excellent comment piece by Zoe Williams in the Guardian.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Those tweets

Thanks to those who pointed us to this conversation yesterday.  Incredible, isn't it?
Let's just think about what was going on in Doncaster.  It would be quite normal, in a group session dealing with, say, interviews, to talk about the need to be scrubbed up and well turned out.  It could well be that one or two people in such a group have obvious problems with personal hygiene.  It should then be up to the adviser to talk to those individuals privately.  Maybe they are homeless.  Maybe they have mental health issues.  But the idea that you need to teach a "class" on washing and using toilet paper is extraordinary.  I'd love to know the reactions of the vast majority of the class.
But then there's the issue of Olliff-Cooper actually tweeting this.  What did he think he was doing?  It's a vile insult to unemployed people forced onto the Work Programme with A4e.  It says to potential employers that  there's no point in even looking at these primitive savages.  And that can't do much to help A4e's profits.  This from the man who is A4e's director of policy and strategy!

Friday, 8 February 2013


That was Mark Hoban's response to the Public Accounts Committee's roasting of the DWP for the misery caused by Atos.  The BBC reports it straightforwardly.  Margaret Hodge put the blame on the DWP rather than on the company, saying that it regarded the appeals process as an inherent part of the system, when it was actually damaging vulnerable people.  Hoban replied that they'd failed to recognise that changes had been made and that independent reports said that the whole thing was fundamentally sound.  Mind you, according to a tweet by Jonty Olliff-Cooper, Hoban has described Jobcentres as "the last vestige of the command and control economy", so are we to expect that they will soon be handed over for private profit?  (JOC calls this comment "pretty fruity from a minister", which must be public school speak for something I don't understand.)

There's an excellent article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian yesterday, in which she describes the "shadow state" created by the outsourcing of public services.  I won't quote from it because you need to read the whole of it.  Last week another Guardian article by Toby Lowe described payment by results as "a dangerous idiocy that makes staff tell lies".  Again, spot on.  And if we needed any more practical examples of how things can go spectacularly wrong, there's the report from the Commons Justice Committee on the "shambolic" situation with court translation services (something Private Eye has been going on about for ages) and the Care Quality Commission's report into Serco's out-of-hours doctor service in Cornwall, which failed the sick by not having enough staff to answer calls.

But all of this is presumably just scaremongering.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Disturbing claim

I want to share this post from the Money Saving Expert website forum, headed "A4e and JSA sanction".
Obviously I can't vouch for the truth of it.  But the advice offered by other people is sound.  Don't collude with a lie.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Let's have a proper debate

Ever since the publication of the dreadful performance data for the Work Programme, the media have been doing a demolition job on the whole fiasco.  I applaud that, and I'm happy to have helped, as, I'm sure, have other bloggers.  We don't mind providing information and contacts to journalists.  We don't even mind that we never get an acknowledgement of our contribution.  I also applaud the fact that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has been taking evidence.  But last Sunday's R5Live programme demonstrated one of the problems.  There may be someone representing the providers, but the presenters don't always have the knowledge to challenge a misleading or inaccurate statement.  And if no one from the government will turn up (and they never do) we are left with a bland response which is not open to interrogation.  The same happens with newspaper articles.  A "DWP spokesman" gets the last word.
It's time for a genuine debate, a confrontation between those responsible for the Work Programme and those who know what's wrong with it.  Leave out the opposition politicians.  Labour has nothing to contribute to this debate; the Work Programme is in many ways simply a continuation of their own Flexible New Deal.  Leave out the civil servants.  Let's have Iain Duncan Smith or Mark Hoban and a representative of the providers facing someone like me (yes, I'd do it, but there are plenty of other people who could) and someone who has been on the receiving end and is knowledgeable and articulate enough to engage in the discussion.  If the government or the providers won't do it, then leave two empty chairs and let the other two relate the flaws in the scheme.  Don't read out a written statement.
It won't happen, I know.  The media have got used to a particular format, and whistle-blowers make good telly, they think.  But maybe .....

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Radio 5 Live Investigates - the self-employment scam

The Radio 5 Live Investigates programme has tackled the Work Programme and its predecessors several times.  Today they were looking at reports that people are being pressured into declaring themselves self-employed simply to get an outcome for the providers, and on the promise that their benefits would actually be higher.  No providers were named, but by the end of the programme it was said that 10 different providers had been accused.
Did we learn anything?  A number of WP clients, two of them on ESA, told of being pressured from very early in their WP experience that they should go self-employed, not because they had any viable business in mind but because they could get more in benefits by claiming Working Tax Credits.  They were given totally inaccurate figures, according to Sue Royston of the CAB, and were being led into a very dangerous situation where the fact that they're not working the requisite number of hours results in a clawback of thousands of pounds.  People spoke about advisers being totally clueless and only driven by the need to get people signed off.  One WP client, an unemployed project manager, faced an "adviser" who didn't know what a project manager was and admitted she couldn't help him, but the office rang a bell, literally, whenever someone signed off.
Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA (the industry's trade body) said she was surprised.  She corrected some of the misinformation - the providers only get an outcome payment after 6 months, not immediately as had been said.  But there was no excuse for bad advice, and people should complain to the provider if they felt they had been wrongly advised.  The researcher was able to point out that people are frightened to complain, and would not use their real names on this programme.  McHugh was then guilty of what I'm seriously tempted to call a lie - that WP providers are not able to sanction anybody.
Mark Hoban wasn't available, and the DWP said that there were always payment checks and a complaints process.  Stephen Timms, for Labour, had nothing useful to say.
What came out of this investigation was that the taxpayer is being ripped off in at least two ways.  WP companies are claiming outcome payments they are not entitled to; and WTC is being paid falsely.  There's also the problem that the government is putting out false figures on jobs.

One thing that wasn't mentioned but which I'm wondering about; is agency work (which has always been regarded as casual work and so doesn't attract an outcome payment) being reclassified as self-employment? I know that supply teaching agencies have forced their clients to become self-employed, so shifting the costs of National Insurance and administration of tax onto the client.  The same seems to be true of nursing agencies.  Is it happening in other areas as well?  If so, it's another serious distortion of the figures.