Sunday, 28 April 2013

Universal Credit - and a sinister development in social housing

The vow of silence on the subject of the Work Programme continues in place, while the government works out how to fiddle the figures.  Perhaps the idea is to blame the "customers" for not being willing to work.  At the moment the spotlight is on Universal Credit, which begins with a tiny "pathfinder" in Ashton under Lyne tomorrow.  Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian on Friday described the pilot and its limitations; and the BBC's Sunday news programme has looked at the problems.  The pilot will include only a very few people, about 300 a month; all of them will be new claimants, not on any other benefits than JSA, single and with no dependants, but with bank accounts.  It would be hard to get that wrong, you would think.  Even when it rolls out nationally in October, families and children will not be included.  But plenty of people anticipate the problems.  A charity which works with young men under 25 says that lots of them can't use a computer.  The local council has installed computer hubs, but points out that the online form, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, has no "save" function.  Tameside CAB is worried about people falling into debt because of monthly payments.
The IT is the worry, of course.  There are so many different interfaces and databases which have to be meshed.  And it's been costing £500,000 a day to develop the systems.  The BBC piece said that Iain Duncan Smith has complained about the way UC is being presented, so they asked him or someone else from the DWP onto the programme - but no one was available.
Nick Cohen in the Observer has a different take on UC.  He says that it "poses a serious threat to women's independence".  That's because it will lump all benefits, including tax credits (but not child benefit) into one payment made into one bank account.  And that is far more likely to be the man's.  If you doubt that, read the article and the link it has to the Women's Budget Group.  Cohen links this attitude to the religious background of IDS's special adviser, Phillippa Stroud, who is also head of his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice.  She's an evangelical Christian, married to the boss of a church which teaches "male servant leadership and joyful female submission".  Whether this is relevant or not, I don't know.

If you're looking for a home in Somerset, you might want to avoid the Yarlington Housing Group.  This housing association, according to the Independent, makes its new residents sign a Household Ambition Plan.  It's so sinister that it has caused a storm of anger.  But expect more of this sort of thing.  Unless you own your own home and don't claim any sort of benefits, you must learn to tug your forelock and obey your masters.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

When does spinning turn into lying?

Two versions of the same story appeared in the news feeds this morning, and I had to read them carefully to work out what was going on.
First, there was the Daily Mail's "One million people who are fit to work have been on benefits for three years".  Then, in the Express, "The one million who are FIT TO WORK but live on benefits".  That one, not surprisingly, is the more disgusting.  It goes on: "A MILLION welfare claimants have lived on working-age benefits for three out of the last four years, despite being judged capable of trying to find a job, shocking figures revealed last night."  You might have worked it out by now.  Yes, about a million of the out-of-work are long-term unemployed.  Do we read on to find out how the Work Programme is helping them, or is going to be changed to help them?  Don't bother, there's no mention of it.  This is from a report to be published by Iain Duncan Smith.  He's more interested in family breakdown, and asserts that "local authorities have already turned around the lives of 1,675 troubled families."  This is the outsourcing of the "troubled families" intervention scheme.  Note that there is no indication of what "turned around the lives" actually means.  Someone got a job?  Who knows.  But the Mail has a pretty graph showing "How Britain's benefits bill has risen" with never a mention of the fact that a huge chunk of the benefits bill consists of pensions.  
So these rags intend their readers to infer that a million people out there are too lazy to work, and add to the clamour for a clampdown.  That isn't spin; that's lying.
For a more truthful account, the Guardian looks at a report by the Fawcett Society which shows that since 2010 almost three times as many women as men have become long-term unemployed.  Men have got 60% of the new private sector jobs.  A big factor in this trend is that women are suffering most from the public sector cuts, losing the low wage, often part-time jobs.  Of course, IDS has nothing to say about this.
Another disturbing story appeared in the Observer on Sunday.  The social fund grew out of the long-standing practice of giving emergency grants to people on benefits to pay for necessary items such as beds or cookers (second-hand, of course) which they didn't have the money to buy.  Labour turned these into loans.  Now, local councils are complaining that more and more people are coming to them for emergency loans, because the jobcentres haven't mentioned the availability of the money.  Indeed, it appears that jobcentre workers have been issued with explicit guidance by the DWP that they should not advertise the existence of the loans so as not to "encourage dependency on the benefits system", and simply pass the buck to the councils.  And it seems that the emergencies which cause the need for short-term loans are no longer the one-off large items but such mundane things as food.
We're now told that the publication of performance data for the WP has been put back.  It was due on 28 May but will now be published on 27 June, and will cover the period to March 2013.  The vow of silence on the whole subject of the WP doesn't augur well for the figures.

On a more general note, I want to recommend a book.  Michael Sandel is an economist, but one who writes in a very lucid way about economics in the real world.  His book What Money Can't Buy - the moral limits of markets (pub. Allen Lane, 2012) is an excellent introduction to thinking about the issue of private profit, ethics and the public arena.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Minimum service, minimum wage and a Labour proposal

Some of you will be familiar with this, but the minimum service delivery promises by the various Work Programme providers have been published on the government's whizzy new website.  I'm particularly interested in A4e's promises, of course.  I'm intrigued to see that they include "A fully personalised service: including (minimum) monthly 1:1 contact with a named advisor and a tailored journey that address their broader needs."  Maximus, Working Links, Prospects, NCG, Serco, Best and G4S say they will see people fortnightly, CDG  monthly.  The others don't specify.  It's amazing that the DWP thought a brief interview once a month was enough, and how that squares with the idea of "a tailored journey".

Labour, as we know, has been struggling to come up with coherent alternatives to the Tory measures, but there is a plan published in the Observer.  It would restore the link between contributions and benefits by paying newly out of work people up to 70% of their previous salaries for up to 6 months (with a cap of £200 a week).  The downside is that the extra would be repayable when the person returned to work.  I'm not sure how that would work if you got a minimum wage job and needed tax credits.  What do you think?

And talking of the minimum wage, there are estimates that anything between 100,000 and half a million workers are receiving less than minimum wage, according to the Independent.  They list a whole raft of scams by which this is done, including deducting money for clothing or benefits in kind; not paying for travel time between sites (something which is common for care workers); and paying piece rates rather than an hourly rate.  The article asks why so few prosecutions have occurred for this - just 8 in the 13 years of the MW's existence - and says that Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is now taking the issue seriously.  Let's hope so.  But what happens when someone who is unemployed takes one of these jobs before discovering the truth, that it doesn't meet MW?  Can they leave it without being punished?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Stats, the BBC - and reputations

The publication of the latest unemployment figures didn't get much coverage because the media were all too concerned with the Thatcher funeral.  However, for analysis have a look at the FullFact site here and here.  The first shows how the government is "managing" i.e. manipulating the figures for the media.  It is telling it's own story which is just not borne out by the true figures.  The second shows "what the politicians missed in the jobless figures".

Another story which might warm your heart (or not) was in the Daily Mail.  It's a very long piece about Iain Duncan Smith and his "days on the breadline".  The most important part of it is his criticism of the BBC:

"He clearly believes passionately in the work he is doing, although he despairs at how the Conservatives’ austerity programme is reported — above all, by the BBC. The BBC is always negative, never explains, never talks about why we are reforming, or the fact that national debt is rising to terrifying levels,’ he complains. All the BBC case studies are hard-luck stories like that of the £53-a-week market trader. They never focus on a family stuck on a housing waiting list or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.’ He is clearly exasperated, too, at how removing the Spare Room Subsidy — which will see housing benefit-payment cuts to council house tenants with surplus spare rooms — has been labelled the ‘bedroom tax’ by Labour. When the BBC employed the same phrase, Duncan Smith complained. ‘Now they call it the “so-called bedroom tax”. It’s a disgrace.’"
As I've said before, this carping and intimidation is disgraceful - though we know it's official Tory policy.  What he says doesn't strike me as remotely accurate.  But IDS bombards the BBC with complaints, was disgustingly rude about Stephanie Flanders, and is really trying to ensure that the BBC presents only the spin that the government wants.  That's what is a disgrace.

And there's another worrying trend.  Anyone who goes public with their opposition to the government is likely to have their backgrounds trawled over and their reputations trashed by the right-wing press.  It happened with the chap who challenged IDS to live on £53 a week, and now it's happened to the woman who led a Facebook campaign to have people turn their backs on the Thatcher funeral procession.  Isn't a free press great!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thanks to the Eye

The latest Private Eye has some interesting sidelights on the Work Programme and attendant issues.
  • The first concerns those sanctions targets which the government so strenuously denies. Labour's Liam Byrne and his colleague in the Lords, Lord McKenzie, have made much of this, wanting an investigation. But the Eye reveals that in 2006 Labour had an explicit target of 6% sanctions, and when this came out the excuses were “spookily similar” to those given recently. They also point out that Freud, who has masterminded much of the current “reform”, was also advisor on welfare to Labour. No wonder Labour's opposition is so lame.

  • FoI requests made by the Eye have also revealed how the government tried to massage the Work Programme figures before their release last year. Mark Hoban, employment minister, met Kirsty McHugh who is head of the ERSA, the trade body for companies like A4e, involved in the WP. “She told Hoban, 'On performance overall, I think it is really important that both the industry and the department are robust in terms of defending the Work Programme as much as we can.'” Hoban's response was that he was keen to put the ERSA's own figure of “200,000 job entries” out there because it would be “much more understandable to the media / public than discussion around Job Outcomes”. This was, of course, deliberately misleading, since the 200,000 figure means nothing without knowing the percentage figure for actual job outcomes. But Hoban and his masters obviously didn't want that to come out. There was a lot of discussion with the ERSA, not, apparently, about why they were doing so badly and what measures were going to be taken to improve the situation, but about how to spin the failure. The emails suggest that the DWP even considered ignoring the contractors' minimum performance levels completely, but McHugh thought they needed to be prepared for questions on it. She was right. The DWP press release did ignore the minimum performance levels, but the media went with it anyway. This hardly inspires confidence that effective measures to tackle the dismal performance of the WP providers are being taken. Indeed, the apparent vow of silence on the whole subject might be a sign that they hope we'll all forget about it – except for those obliged to take part in it, of course.

  • Finally, the much unloved Universal Jobmatch. The last edition of Private Eye showed that many of the vacancies for carers were being advertised on the site at well below minimum wage when travel time was taken into account, and that the DWP was not interested in doing anything about this. Now they've turned their attention to the non-jobs (which many of our readers know only too well). They found adverts which turned out to come from outfits which demanded personal data but then never responded; simple data mining, in other words. And they chased down adverts for what are not real jobs but “multi-level marketing”, particularly from Kleeneze reps. Again, people were using UJM simply to garner contact details and make money out of desperate people. This isn't new. Such “opportunities” have been a familiar feature of job sites for years. But now that people can be punished for not pursuing them, it's only a matter of time before someone loses their benefits for refusing to join one of these pyramid selling schemes.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Failing Work Programme and dodgy statistics

A report from the DWP itself makes fascinating reading, according to an article in the Guardian online.  The private companies given the contracts say that they can't afford to provide what they contracted to provide.  They can't give the one-to-one support except "where necessary".  They can't provide even things like basic skills "to the level that would really make a difference to the customer".  And it's all because of the "high level of demand" - too many people being referred.
The government response is limp and misleading.  It claims that 207,000 long-term unemployed have been put into work, and the scheme is providing value to tax-payers.  Nonsense.  These companies bid for the contracts with their eyes wide open.  In some cases their bids seemed unrealistic even to the DWP.  But the government can't pull the plug now.  To end the contracts prematurely would cost a great deal more money. And what do they do then?  It would be an admission that the whole model was deeply flawed from the start.  There's nothing to put in its place unless they're prepared to go back to the drawing board.  And so to save face they will probably renegotiate the contracts.  The people who will continue to lose out are the "customers" (who, we insist, are not actually the customers at all).

Iain Duncan Smith will cling to his pet projects as long as he can, and once again he's under fire for "manipulating" statistics to suit his case.  First there was the claim that vast numbers of people had rushed to sign on to sickness and disability benefits to forestall the new assessment regime.  Then we heard that even before the benefits cap came in, loads of people had decided to get work - a puzzling interpretation of the facts.  That annoyed Jonathan Portes, who used to be the chief economist at the DWP and is now director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.  He told the Radio 4 Today programme that it showed a consistent pattern of ministers manipulating statistics for their own political ends.  Maybe it's true, he said, but the analysis hadn't been done so you simply shouldn't say it.  (See an article in the Independent.)  It's probably the case that IDS doesn't see the point here.  He wants it to be true, so it is.  And, of course, the right-wing press is only too eager to snap up these highly dubious figures to bolster their own case.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Cuts you might not know about

Perhaps I should have known, but I don't remember reading about them anywhere, until I read this piece in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee.  She writes:

"Yet to come will be abundant evidence of serial DWP policy errors. Just wait for the implications to sink in of absurdities such as this. Helping the long-term unemployed into work is every government's goal, with Iain Duncan Smith spending a fortune on his failing Work Programme. Three things help bridge the gap between dole and work: a £100 job grant tides people over until payday, paying for the bus to work, avoiding Wonga loans. A one-month run-on for housing benefit stops people falling into rent arrears when waiting for their first pay cheque. A £250 grant pays the upfront deposit for a childcare place, without which single parents can't take an offered job. The cost is negligible, yet these sensible bridges into work are being abolished. How wise will voters think that?"

This is shocking.  Previous governments recognised that when you signed off your benefits stopped immediately, but you might well not get paid for a month.  You were unlikely to have anything to tide you over, so the grants were sensible.  The only alternative was a loan, and these days that means Wonga or loan sharks.  But this government hasn't a clue, and would rather shovel the money at the WP companies.  Brilliant.

There's another "Comment is Free" article worth reading: Frank Field on "How Labour can reclaim welfare".  

Thursday, 11 April 2013

What's in a name?

Last year A4e was told by the Advertising Standards Authority to stop describing itself as a "social purpose company" because it could mislead people into thinking it was a social enterprise rather than a profit-making business.  There has always been a bit of a problem for the media in describing the company.  "Recruitment agency" or "recruitment company" have been used frequently and, of course, inaccurately.  Now A4e has come up with a new phrase.  In a piece on its website about a job fair in Sheffield it calls itself "Sheffield public service provider".
Are they are providing a public service?  It's debatable.  But that's semantics.  I'm more interested in why the company feels the need to come up with these phrases, as if trying to distance itself from the fact that it is a business which, like all businesses, exists to make a profit.  "Public service provider" seems like a cloak of respectability designed to disguise that.  Why can't they just call themselves an outsourcing company?

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Sinister pressure on the BBC

I don't read the Sun.  I'm proud to say that.  I regard the Sun as having done huge damage to our national culture.  However, yesterday a piece popped up in the news alerts which is worth careful reading.
We know that Iain Duncan Smith doesn't like criticism, and it's possible to read this as merely him jumping up and down in a temper.  But there's more behind it.  First, he "branded the BBC as ridiculous" for its coverage of welfare issues.  Then he "savaged" the Guardian for talking only about cuts, and called it a "campaign rag".  This is the quote:

'He also tore into Beeb coverage of welfare reform. He said: “It’s easier for  them to live with the Guardian than anybody else, that’s to say more money is good, less money is a cut.  The word ‘reform’ very rarely passes their lips but the word ‘cuts’ is always  in their broadcasts.  The phrase ‘bedroom tax’ is a misnomer, it’s a Labour Party name. They never talk about under-occupancy or a spare room subsidy. Evan Davis (presenter of Radio 4’s Today) keeps asking everybody all through the programme, ‘Should Iain Duncan Smith resign?’ What for? Because that’s what the Labour Party was asking for, so he had to  repeat it. It’s a joke.”'
Remember that this is a government minister commenting on the free, independent media they're supposedly keen on, and singling out a presenter who is doing his job.  But George Osborne also gets in on the act:
'Chancellor George Osborne joined in the assault on the BBC, claiming that ordinary working people’s opinions were being ignored because of “lazy journalism”. He accused the Beeb of relying on comments from pressure groups to fill news bulletins, and said: “I don’t think the voices of working people who pay their taxes for this system are heard often enough. They experience in their daily lives the abuse of that system and I don’t think that is often reported.”'

The Guardian is the only paper (with the occasional exception of the Independent) which prints the stuff which IDS and his bunch would like to hide.  And the BBC is vital as our only source of unbiassed reporting on TV and radio.  It may not seem unbiassed at times - that's inevitable - but as long as both right and left are complaining, they must be getting it broadly correct.  

Now read this from Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home.  He's commenting on what IDS and Osborne have said, and it's really sinister.  
"The last week has shown what is possible when the Conservative Party gets its act together and acts in concert with the centre right press. The consistency of message may be a first sign that Lynton Crosby is delivering the kind of message discipline that he was recruited for."  
Even worse is the suggestion in some of the comments under the piece that the government could put pressure on the BBC by starting a review of the licence fee.

On a day when so many of us have had to switch off all radio and TV to escape wall-to-wall Thatcher (no comments about that, please), and in the wake of the trashing of the Leveson recommendations in the name of freedom of the press, we should remember that it's only a free press and a free BBC which give us the information with which to oppose government - any government.  Bloggers and campaign groups can't do it alone.  

Sunday, 7 April 2013


Once again I'm indebted to an anonymous comment for pointing me to this story.
The Work Programme isn't inspected by Ofsted, or anyone else.  Its predecessors, New Deal and FND, were, but either the government had unlimited faith in the power of profit, or the providers made it a condition of taking part, and there is no inspection of the WP.  However, the Learning and Skills provision, dealing with apprenticeships and "employability", does fall under Ofsted's remit.  It's called Work-based Learning, and the funding comes from the Skills Funding Agency.  And the latest inspection of A4e pronounces the company "Inadequate".  You can download it here.
A couple of points about Ofsted first.  Teachers maintain that the new boss, Wilshaw, ordered that all grades should be lowered, so what had previously been "satisfactory" should now be "inadequate" - I don't know how true that is.  And the reports are couched in very careful language, so it's sometimes hard to see why an institution should be blasted.  But with all that in mind, there is no doubt that A4e has performed badly.
Three previous inspections said they were only "satisfactory".  This latest took place early in February, and noted that things had not improved.  The summary says: "This provider is inadequate because -
  • Leaders and managers have failed to ensure that a systematic approach routinely improves outcomes and the quality of provision in A4e learning and skills programmes. Three previous inspections noted that arrangements to ensure or improve the quality of provision were in development; revised quality systems are not having a significant impact.  
  • Outcomes on the apprenticeship programme that A4e has delivered for many years have had consistently inadequate outcomes. Since the previous inspection almost half of the nearly 2500 apprentices who left the scheme did so without their main qualification.  
  • Too much teaching, learning and assessment is uninspiring or mechanistic. Performance in subject areas has rarely risen above satisfactory or requiring improvement in 10 years of inspection.
  • A4e’s self-assessment and quality improvement processes are overly complex. Judgements, especially for learners’ outcomes, are too generous. The process for observing of teaching, learning and assessment is not effective enough to drive up standards."
It's necessary to read the whole report, but one or two things stand out.  Under Outcomes for Learners we're told that A4e had outcomes 25% below those of its subcontractors, who deliver 20% of the provision.  Later, the report says that "Apparently high-performing subcontractors, working with programmes for unemployed people, will not be working with A4e in the near future."  All the grades, for subject areas and for general quality and effectiveness are either 3 (requires improvement) or 4 (inadequate).  And note above that they say that "Performance in subject areas has rarely risen above satisfactory or requiring improvement in 10 years of inspection."  Overall, it's inadequate.
Suppose this was a school which Ofsted was inspecting.  Do you think it would be allowed to stay open?

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Giving the game away

Work experience - a voluntary scheme since last year, when employers decided that it wasn't good for their image if people could be punished for refusing to do it.  It's not the same as the Work Programme or Mandatory Work Activity.  So that's all right.  But now Homebase has been embarrassed by the leak of an internal document which shows the scheme being promoted among Homebase's store managers.  A photo of a dozen or so jobseekers at the Haringey branch is captioned: "Would 750 hours with no payroll costs benefit YOUR store?"  This was passed to Tom Pride and has now been given wider coverage by the Guardian.  The subheading on the document is "How the work experience scheme can benefit your store".  Apparently the Haringey Homebase took 25 unpaid jobseekers in February, each working 30 hours a week for up to 8 weeks.  The Boycott Workfare group claims to have an anonymous source which says that those taking part were threatened with sanctions if they refused.  In one of those tweets which rapidly get deleted, the Finsbury Park jobcentre claimed, 2 days before the Easter holiday, that it had placed 21 people on the scheme in the Haringey store.  The union Unite is outraged.
Homebase has said all the right things.  People on the scheme are not replacing paid workers, they can leave whenever they want to, etc.  And the DWP says that there are safeguards to ensure that people are not being exploited.  But the person who drew up the Homebase document clearly saw the scheme as useful free labour.
If this is happening with the supposedly voluntary scheme, what is going on with those programmes which make no pretence to being voluntary?  Remember that the government adamantly refuses to disclose which organisations are involved, so we don't know how many other companies are benefitting from "no payroll costs".

Thursday, 4 April 2013

What about A4e?

That was the question asked by a friend, who noticed that this blog has veered off into the territory of welfare changes rather than focussing on the company.  There's a good reason for that.  A4e is attracting very little publicity and isn't seeking it.  How different from when Emma Harrison was in charge!
But attention needs to turn to all the companies delivering the Work Programme.  You may have noticed that in all the recent coverage of the changes, no politician has mentioned the WP.  And no journalist has asked the obvious questions.  Since the Work Programme is a failure, why are you still pouring money into it?  And why are you painting the unemployed as idle, not "doing the right thing" (and much worse), when your scheme to help them into work has proved useless?
We don't know whether A4e's finances have improved in the last 12 months.  It seems unlikely.  They are still advertising for staff in the same language as in the past.  There's an advert for an Advisor (Skills) Work Programme on the jobandtalent site (I don't know whether it's also on UJM) which talks about "individual, tailored support for each customer" and also "sales leads" and "sales calls", which is an odd way of describing contacts with employers.  We also get "A4e's DNA: Trusted, Passionate, Driven, Brave, Friendly and Caring" and "A4e's core mission is to improve people's lives".  I'm not mocking this.  It ought to be the reality.  But it's more than ever hollow, when there's no profit to be made and the struggle is just to keep the losses down.  
A4e, and all the providers, are almost certainly dealing with people who are increasingly angry and / or demoralised.  The government is determined to paint every benefits claimant as a drain on the taxpayer.  And now they have used the Philpott case to advance that idea.  As the Independent reports, Osborne is "questioning why taxpayers were funding 'lifestyles like that'".  Others are using it to call for cuts to child benefit.  And all of it after the disgusting Daily Mail opened the subject.  For a magnificent rebuttal to that, I applaud Zoe Williams in the Guardian.  

Monday, 1 April 2013

Black Monday

There's been plenty of coverage today of the welfare "reforms" which have kicked in - together with big cuts in legal aid and huge changes in the NHS.  Get it all over with in one go, I suppose the government said.  I caught the interview with Iain Duncan Smith on the Today programme where he was trapped into saying that he could live on £53 a week if he had to, inspiring a petition on for him to do just that for a year.  And there's just been a civilised discussion on the late news programme on Radio 4.  Labour has coined its sound-bite - "the brutal society".  And tomorrow Osborne intends to keep it going.  The Independent says he's making a speech in which he will claim that "vested interests", including churches and charities, which have condemned the cuts are reacting with "depressingly predictable outrage" to necessary reforms.  The government is confident that the public, or that section of it which has no personal experience of living on benefits, is on their side.
If anything good could possibly come out of this, it will be the beginning of a genuine debate about what we want the welfare state to be.