Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The jobcentre experience; and pauper management

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

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

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The prison experiments and what they teach us

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

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The conversion of the Express?

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

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The outsourcing argument

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 November 2013

What would I do?

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

Thursday, 7 November 2013

It wasn't me, it was him

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

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

"I don't believe it"

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

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

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

Lots to comment on, I think.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

What is going on at the DWP?

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

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

Friday, 1 November 2013

How quickly they forget

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