Friday, 31 May 2013

Intensive and uncompromising

You're coming to the end of your two years on the Work Programme.  What now?  After all that "tailored support" (don't laugh) you still can't get a job.  Perhaps now they'll get off your back for a while.  But no.  According to a government press release, "Work Programme leavers will be targeted by a hit squad of specialist advisers as part of a tough approach to get them into a job."
You see, it's your fault.  You've had all that help but you remain stubbornly unemployed, so clearly what you need is an "intensive and uncompromising regime ....... with rigorous monitoring to ensure they are doing everything they can to find work".  This will be delivered by the Jobcentres.  People will be put onto training schemes, Mandatory Work Activity placements or "intensive work preparation" as soon as they come off the WP.  An extra £30m is going on this, for extra training and specialist help such as counselling for drug or alcohol dependency.  Another requirement: "Every Work Programme returner will also be required to register with Universal Jobmatch to aid work search and job matching and to allow their adviser to check their work search activity online."  There has, apparently, been a pilot scheme (where?) which proved, said officials, that "claimants targeted by an intensive approach were much less likely to stay on benefit."  (Telegraph)  No figures, you notice, but we would have no reason to believe them if there were.
This is a tacit acknowledgement that the WP is a waste of money.  Two years in which all this stuff was supposed to be happening and obviously wasn't - so throw a bit more money at it, cutting out the WP providers.  But the attitude is ingrained in this government that people are out of work by choice, and if you just keep cranking up the pressure they'll get a job.  Or, at least, they will disappear from the lists of benefits claimants.  
Labour has said that WP leavers would be forced to accept a paid job, but we wait for them to fill in the details.  It surely has to be better than this government's clueless plan.

One bit of good news: the BBC reports that in 2012-2013, 708 employers have been fined for paying less than minimum wage, and affected workers have got an average of £300 in back pay.  One of the guilty employers is described as a "national retailer", but is not named.  Why not?

Update:  Today, Saturday, the odious Express tells the story in its own disgusting way.  "Hit squads to force workshy back into jobs" is the headline.  It goes on: "At the heart of the Government’s reforms is frustration at a generation of lifelong layabouts, immortalised by fictional Frank Gallagher from TVs Shameless", and there's a photo to illustrate these workshy people.  As we've said before, it suits the government to have its actions portrayed in this lying way, and no recourse for the long-term unemployed who are being traduced.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

It's not my fault!

Any parent or teacher knows the scenario.  The child has committed some act of wrongdoing.  You saw him do it, and he knows you saw him do it.  But he keeps on insisting that he didn't do it, because he thinks you will have to accept that and not chastise him.  And eventually he comes to believe that he really didn't do it.  That seems to be the mindset among government ministers at the moment, especially in the DWP.
There's a report out, called Walking the Breadline, by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, which calls for an urgent parliamentary enquiry into how "welfare changes and mistakes by Jobcentre Plus staff are causing benefits errors or sanctions, which push vulnerable people into precarious situations".  (Guardian)  There's much more on the report in the article, including the fact that it wants the DWP to publish the data on the number of people sanctioned.  (Remember the DWP has just refused to do so.)  Other papers also report this, including, with breathtaking hypocrisy, the Express and also the Telegraph.  "Half a million can't afford to feed themselves after benefit reforms" is the headline in the Telegraph.  Whether any of the papers went to Iain Duncan Smith for a response I don't know, but there isn't one.
The report is also concerned about the possible impact of Universal Credit.  A recent Cabinet Office report said that UC was in danger of failing.  But that couldn't be IDS's fault.  According to an article by Isabel Hardman in the Spectator, it's all the fault of the civil servants.  "One loyal cabinet colleague of Iain Duncan Smith says the Secretary of State was 'extremely badly let down' by his officials on the 'shockingly bad' set-up of Universal Credit."  Interestingly, if a local councillor blames his officers for anything, it's a hanging offence.  Or rather, he gets suspended.  But MPs can apparently do it with impunity.  There's a longer quote from this article which I find fascinating.  "In his biography of the Chancellor, Janan Ganesh reported that Osborne was suspicious that the Christian sense of mission behind the plan might blind those advocating it to whether it would really work. But those close to the Work and Pensions Secretary believe he has since managed to make the case to the Treasury for this reform. ‘Iain has taken George with him and we do have the support of George now on universal credit,’ says a source close to the minister. Indeed, Osborne seemed happy to praise the Credit in a speech on welfare in April."
So however bad things get; however great the suffering of the victims; it won't be the government's fault.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Playing games with welfare

The Telegraph has just put up an article which shows just how cynical the political games have become, as people's lives are used as counters by Iain Duncan Smith and others.  He has offered to cut another £3bn from the welfare bill in order to protect the armed forces.  This would mean, it's thought, revisiting the cuts which were proposed by the Tories and blocked by the Lib Dems; restricting housing benefit for the under-25s and limiting payments to people with more than two children.  The game works like this: further down we read, "A senior Conservative source said: 'It is now a simple choice, Iain Duncan Smith has offered a deal which will protect the country’s security. The Liberal Democrats will block it — and it will be for them to explain why it is more important for teenagers to be given council flats rather than for the nation and its citizens to be protected.'"  Under-25s have become "teenagers", versus the armed forces who are protecting the nation.  It's hardly subtle.  But: "The Lib Dems have indicated that they will not allow working-age handouts to be reduced again unless the Conservatives drop their opposition to means-testing some benefits paid to pensioners, including the winter fuel allowance."  So that's the other part of the game; hit those of working age or hit pensioners, which do you want?

If you're wondering where all this is going to end up, the Guardian has a disturbing article on the growth of food banks.  Read the whole thing to find the answer; as charities take over from the state, the state - including mainstream society - doesn't feel the need to address the root cause of hardship and poverty, and the foodbanks become part of what an academic calls "a secondary food system for the poor".

It occurred to me today that we haven't heard any more about what appeared to be inevitable a year or two ago; the privatisation of Jobcentre Plus.  Could it be that government realised that the bidders would be the very same companies which were failing so dismally with the Work Programme?

Friday, 24 May 2013

What's happened to A4e?

That was a question a friend asked me recently.  And then a rather rude anonymous commenter said more or less the same thing.  The answer is, I don't know because it's all gone very quiet.  There were two recent ads for jobs with A4e in the prison education service in the south of England.  They're using the agency Randstad to advertise these jobs, which means, unusually for A4e, that the salaries are given.  But that's about it.  Nothing more has been heard about the Slough fraud case.  Over the course of a year, from February 2012 to February this year, a total of 11 people from the Slough A4e office have been arrested over allegations of fraud that were apparently brought to light by A4e itself.  The legal process in this country can grind very slowly, but this is getting a bit silly.  No more financial information is available; accounts and returns are only published once a year.  The last lot showed the company in deep trouble.  And A4e is definitely not courting publicity at the moment.
There are contracts out there.  G4S have just got the contract to run two support centres for rape and sex attack victims in the West Midlands.  But most of the action is in areas of activity where A4e doesn't have a track record, and the pickings are slim.
There's a lot riding on the Work Programme for the company.  Unless they have started making a reasonable profit they're really in trouble.  We'll have some indication of this next month.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

IDS in bother again

It's another bad patch for Iain Duncan Smith.  Those pesky judges in the Upper Tribunal have ruled that the Work Capability Assessment, which tests whether people are fit for employment, is inadequate when it comes to people with certain mental conditions, like autism, which mean they lack insight.  It puts them at a substantial disadvantage when trying to navigate the process.  Under the present system the claimants are expected to put together the medical evidence themselves, but the lawyers argued that it should be the government's responsibility.  Now, a reasonable response to this ruling, you would think, would be a statement that the DWP accepts it and will put things right.  But not the DWP.  The Huffington Post publishes the tweets from the DWP press office: "We disagree with today's ruling...".  So they'll appeal and stall.
IDS can avoid personal responsibility for that one, but not for the "misuse" of statistics recently.  Now we learn that he is to be "grilled" (not literally, sadly) by the Work & Pensions Select Committee as they "examine the way DWP releases benefit statistics to the media".  For a summary, see the New Statesman article here.  Should be interesting.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Work Programme - not working

The Work and Pensions Committee has reported on the Work Programme, and its verdict is that it's not working for the long term unemployed and the most disadvantaged.  The official account of it is here.  The main points which I've picked out of it are:

  • The government spent about £248m less than it anticipated on the WP in 2012 / 13 because the results were poorer than they expected.  
  • They support the "black box" approach (they shouldn't) but they want it balanced by minimum service standards.  They point out that the providers are allowed to set their own standards which are currently "so vague as to allow providers to virtually ignore some jobseekers if they so choose".
  • There are no figures for the numbers being referred to specialist sub-contractors.
  • They want "a review of Work Programme sanctioning activity as a matter of urgency".
The media have picked up on various aspects of the report.  The Mirror quotes the committee's chair, Dame Anne Begg, who said, "Too often, the reality seems to be Work Programme advisers swamped by caseloads of 120 to 180 jobseekers, and employers deluged with poorly matched CVs and under-prepared candidates."  This is significant.  We know that people are being made to apply for jobs they know they can't possibly get, and suspect that WP advisers are sending out CVs off their own bats.
The Telegraph picks out the fact that the WP is "failing single parents".  The Independent talks about the problem of people who are "parked" because they're too difficult to help.  The BBC news website picks up the "poorly matched CVs" point.
The BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning ran an item on the report - but bodged it as usual.  They had a homeless man, Billy, whose experience of the WP was horrible.  He'd been sanctioned for missing an appointment which had actually been cancelled.  The interviewer, Sarah Montague, didn't know enough to bring this out, and Kirsty McHugh for the ERSA (the industry's trade body) was able to get away with blaming Jobcentre Plus for the "mistake".  McHugh has copied the politicians' technique of talking fast and throwing out misleading "facts".  She talked about 300,000 people being "helped into jobs" so far.  When Montague questioned whether these were long-term jobs the answer was a fudge.  And McHugh even stated that if a number of short-term jobs added up to 6 months, this was an outcome.  Is it?  Does anyone know whether the providers get paid for this?
I really hope that journalists (and I know that there are some who read this blog) will get the facts straight when the figures are finally published.

There have been some critical reactions to the Centre for Social Justice's report on "welfare ghettos".  Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation picks the CSJ's figures to bits in an excellent article on the Foundation's website, and insists that it's not people's attitudes which drive worklessness, but what he calls "decayed job markets".  There's an angry response to the report by the leader of Birmingham City Council,  in the Birmingham Mail.  He talks about "character assassination" and emphasises the lack of jobs.  The Guardian went to Hull, to the offices of the WP subcontractor Pertemps, and concluded that the jobs simply weren't there.  But, of course, that's not the message which the government wants put out.  Blame the victims, it's so much easier than doing something positive.

Monday, 20 May 2013

A lesson in propaganda

The latest exercise in propaganda by combined right-wing forces in this country is a classic of its kind.
It starts with a report by the Centre for Social Justice, the "think-tank" set up by Iain Duncan Smith and run by his adviser Philippa Stroud.  This is reported in detail by the Telegraph.  The phrase "welfare ghettos" is prominent.  That's important.  The word "ghetto" is innocent enough in its original meaning ("a part of a city, esp. a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups") but of course it's a very loaded word now.  The report is full of figures purporting to show that almost 7 million people live in these "welfare ghettos" where more than half the working age population is dependent on benefits.
I haven't looked at the report itself, but I suppose that the Telegraph has reported it faithfully.  If so, there are a great many question marks over it.  It talks about "areas" of various cities.  How is an area defined?  At one point they talk about "neighbourhoods"; again, how do you define that?  This isn't nit-picking.  You can draw lines on a map to produce whatever figures you want.  48 charities were consulted.  96% of them (why can't they just say "46 charities"?) said that "they had come across families where unemployment was intergenerational".  All that means is that both the kids and the parents were out of work.  It tells us nothing else - certainly not how many families were involved.
They do make an important point about aspiration.  Lots of youngsters do not expect to ever have a job, and don't aspire to anything better than they have now, except to become a celebrity.  But the CSJ manage to link that with the benefits cap.
The Express's account is less nuanced, as you would expect.  The headline is "Welcome to the benefit ghettos where the majority live on state handouts".  There's a photo of a young woman pushing a toddler in a buggy; we are, of course, meant to take the point about teenage single mothers.  There is a familiar response from the DWP about welfare reforms improving the lives of these people.
The Mail is, as usual, hysterical.  It uses the same phraseology about "benefit ghettos" but there are graphics for those who need pictures with their reading.  My earlier point about the definition of an area is important in  the context of the Mail's version.  They list 6 places where there are a large number of "neighbourhoods" with more than 30% unemployed.  But to say that there are "nearly 70 neighbourhoods" in Liverpool" in this state is a nonsense.  Are we talking about a large housing estate or a small street?  The article ends by saying that the CSJ is working on a follow-up report with its recommendations.
So a minister's pet think-tank comes up with a report with the message which the minister wants to convey, and the right-wing press runs with it in its own inimitable way.  Goebbels would be proud.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Workfare - the government must come clean

The DWP refused Freedom of Information requests to reveal the organisations which were using free labour under the various schemes dubbed "workfare".  The Information Commissioner said they had to.  The DWP refused again, on the grounds that it would cause "damage to commercial interests", and charities would suffer from the "adverse publicity".  Now a tribunal led by three judges has ruled that the DWP must comply and publish the list.  (See the Guardian)
While the Boycott Workfare group is justifiably triumphant, I don't think they should rejoice too soon.  This government doesn't regard such legal rulings as binding.  As the Guardian says, they could appeal to the high court or use a ministerial veto to ban publication.  My bet would be that the list never will be published.
The DWP seems to assume that if they have to reveal the organisations taking part in these schemes it will effectively bring them to an end.  And that means, they say, that the firms paid to organise them would have to sack staff and lose money.  Ingeus said it would lose £1m in revenue, and Seetec said they would have to sack 53 people.  (A4e don't seem to have been asked.)  So the taxpayer is paying millions to force people into working for their benefits.  Crazy, isn't it?  There's another interesting fact in the Guardian piece.  The current Chief Executive of Ingeus is Dean James, who is a former senior DWP civil servant.  How very cosy.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Sanctions statistics - they're not going to publish them

Today was supposed to be the day the updated stats for JSA sanctions were published.  But the DWP has decided not to publish them.  In an announcement the DWP said that there were "significant doubts around the quality of the statistics relating to the new regime".  So they're going to work on them and publish them at some point in the future.
The new series of stats is to run from October 2012 to January 2013, and "include a breakdown by Jobcentre Plus office".  So why there's doubt about their "quality" is anybody's guess.  An article in the Scottish Daily Record quoted figures for April 2012 (yes, last year).  4,680 claimants in Scotland had their benefits stopped in that month, compared to 500 in the same month in 2009.  The article quotes the concerns of Citizens Advice Scotland about both the numbers being punished and the "unreasonable or unfair" nature of many of the cases.
So one wonders why the DWP is so concerned not to publish updated figures.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The only game in town

A4e "welcomes" the new contracts to be issued by Chris Grayling for "offender rehabilitation", or so they say on their website.  These contracts will privatise a chunk of the work of the Probation Service, and they're set to be on a Payment by Results basis.  PbR is not a model the outsourcing companies like; but it seems to be the only game in town at the moment.  The Work Programme hasn't been a good advertisement for it, and Mark Hoban (more about him later) has reiterated that the worst-performing providers will be penalised by losing "up to 5%" of their new referrals.  It's hard to see that as a punishment.  The providers have complained that they have too many referrals and not enough money to do anything useful with them.  Hoban is talking tough, saying that he's willing to see providers go out of business if they can't deliver on the contracts they signed.  But if any of the big companies, including A4e, went bust it would cause big problems, as the remaining providers would be expected to pick up the business.

The Telegraph reports that Mark Hoban has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the MPs' second homes scam.  He sold his London flat, funded partly through the MPs' expenses system, in November with a profit of £144,000.  He's only been asked to repay £11,332, because that's all that's due since the new system kicked in.  The article, somewhat tongue in cheek, ends by describing Hoban as the minister "at the forefront of trying to get more people off benefits and into work".  It really does point up the hypocrisy of politicians who milk the system while vilifying the poorest.

Two more articles I'll simply recommend without comment.  The first is in the Guardian: "Recession is a good time to exploit cheap labour, says Cameron aide".  The second, also in the Guardian, is by Nick Cohen: "Lies, damned lies and Iain Duncan Smith".

Finally, a demonstration of how the right-wing press works hand in glove with the government, this time to denigrate the BBC.  The Express has splashed an account of a book which purports to show left-wing bias in the Beeb.

Friday, 10 May 2013

More truth, more lies

Iain Duncan Smith has been taken to task by the official statistics watchdog over his claims that the £26,000 a year benefits cap spurred 8,000 unemployed people to find jobs.  Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has written to the TUC (following a complaint from them) to say that he did not comply with the code of practice on the way ministers handled figures, and wanting assurance that he won't do it again.  It sounds mild enough, but the language is strong for that kind of official letter.  The Huffington Post has the full letter, and the Independent dissects it.  Channel 4 News' FactCheck has also described the situation.  They all point out that this isn't the first time that IDS has been officially rebuked for making false claims.  At last, this morning, the BBC has reported the story, talking briefly to MP Dame Anne Begg who was copied into the letter.  She talked about using figures to make a political point and referred to the false claims about 1 million people who were supposedly fit for work.
But "lies, damned lies and statistics" are the stuff of much modern journalism.  Ministers are fond of talking about "fraudanderror" (as if it was one word) costing vast amounts of money.  Left Foot Forward publishes the official figures from the DWP, which show that just 0.7% of total benefit expenditure (£1.2bn) is down to claimant fraud.  0.9% is due to claimant error, 0.4% to official error.  A poll carried out for the TUC shows that the public believes that the fraud figure is 27%.  Now, how could they get that false impression?  Could it be the result of disgusting "journalism" like that in the Express today?  Somebody called Martyn Brown writes an article headlined "Call for new blitz on benefits to cut £3.6bn fraud bill".  Hang on, where did that figure come from?  Oh yes, it's 3 years' worth.  And there's a great big photo of "benefit scrounger Mick Philpott" (who is referred to again at the end of the article as if he's typical).  The only reference to percentages in the piece is the fact that the figure for official error has fallen to 0.4%.  Brown dissects the fraud figures to show what huge amounts of money are involved, and drags in the odious Taxpayers' Alliance in support.  There's nothing in the piece which is actually false (I think) but it's pure propaganda, selective use of the figures to create a false impression.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The freedom of the press - to lie

The owner of the Daily Express is Richard Desmond.  The editor is Hugh Whittow.  The writer of a particularly shameless article today is Giles Sheldrick.  I mention these names because newspaper articles don't come about by accident.  They are the result of deliberate decisions by men who consider themselves free to debase the whole concept of truth.  This is propaganda of the most egregious kind, peddling an interpretation of figures which have been shown to be false.  These men don't have to explain why they do this.  They are not answerable to the people they insult and denigrate.  They just make money.
If you have read the article, you might also read this piece in the New Statesman; or, if that's a bit left-wing for your taste, this one in the Economist.  You might also read FullFact's analysis of the figures, written back on 24 April.  But the circulation of the Express is nearly 600,000, and presumably those people read it because it confirms their prejudices, not for truth.
Related to all this is an interesting piece on the Left Foot Forward website, which graphs the number of times the word "scrounger" has been used in British newspapers since 1994.  It takes off steeply from 2010. Some of the comments under the article rubbish the accuracy of the exercise, but it remains fascinating.

PS:  I later discovered this, even worse, article in the Daily Mail.  They've added a bogus "workshy map of Britain" to fuel the lie of those "found fit to work".  It's breathtaking in its sheer dishonesty.  The writer is someone called Amanda Williams.  I wonder how much she was paid for this scurrilous trash.  These two papers between them continue to make Britain a nastier place than even the politicians know how to do.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

The "Nudge Unit" is in the news today.  This is more properly known as the "Behavioural Insights Team" and exists to "nudge" people into making "better life choices".  I'm putting that in inverted commas because the more cynical among us might describe such a project differently.  One of the tasks they took on in recent months was to work with a group of unemployed people.  What they came up with was spectacularly obvious, and they released the news of its success three times before anyone took any notice.
On Tuesday we learned that this team have been inflicting a psychometric test on the unemployed - a test you can find here.  The Guardian describes it as bogus because users found that they could click repeatedly on the same answer and get the same results as someone who clicked repeatedly on the opposite answer.  Jobseekers have been threatened with sanctions by the DWP for not completing it, but then the DWP denied that anyone would be stripped of benefits.  The BBC also reported what Labour called "mumbo-jumbo" tests.
Now we hear that the unit is to become part of what the Independent calls "the great civil service sell-off".  It's to be "mutualised" - ownership will be around 25% government, 25% employees and 50% private companies, which will bid for the privilege.  Eventually up to 75,000 civil servants in a variety of sectors will be transferred into the private sector.  This will enable the government to claim that they have presided over the creation of all those new private sector jobs.  They are putting a completely different spin on it, of course, whilst admitting privately that it avoids the problems of "naked privatisation".
Universal Credit got off to a nervous start.  The Guardian pointed out that the first page of the application contains a spelling mistake - "seperating".