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:" 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.