Thursday 30 January 2014

The future of JCP

You may have missed it.  It certainly wasn't well publicised.  But then the report into Jobcentre Plus by the Work & Pensions select committee wasn't going to excite the media.  You can read the full report and a good summary on parliament's own site.  The few news sites which did pick this up highlighted the judgement that jobcentres assess claimants "haphazardly" (BBC) and that "Jobcentre staff are sanctioning benefits claimants inappropriately for minor infringements" (the Independent).
One of the most important of its recommendations was that JCP should continue to be a public service, i.e. not outsourced.  The committee also picked up on the fact that its targets are focussed on getting people off benefits, rather than into work.  They recognise that the two aims are different, and the focus should be on helping claimants to find work, not pushing them off the books by means of sanctions or putting them on another benefit.  The jobcentres often don't know enough about the "barriers" which individuals face, such as homelessness.
The report is scathing about sanctions.  The committee wants an independent enquiry into the regime, as well as the urgent monitoring of the financial hardship they cause.  They say that data on the numbers "signposted" by JCP to food banks should be collected and published (Iain Duncan Smith has refused to do this).  And the stress on conditionality must be balanced by greater efforts to actually help and support people.
Finally, they point to the increasing work-load being pushed onto the jobcentres (including making people on in-work benefits sign on), with no indication of what extra resources will be put in to cope with it.
It's a good report.  What a pity that it will be ignored.

We've all noticed the rubbish uttered by the anonymous DWP spokeswoman (or, occasionally, spokesperson) in response to media stories.  None of the media ever name her, although they will all know who she is.  She is part of a sinister trend in the DWP, well covered by Simon Barrow on the Ekklesia website, for people who are paid to be neutral civil servants to, instead, play a party-political role in the way it churns out propaganda.  Since this is so obvious, there is no reason to maintain the anonymity.

Those getting by on £71 a week JSA will have been amused (or not) to read about the £75,000 of taxpayers' money spent on media training for Lord Freud and others at the DWP.  The Huffington Post lists what it calls "the 5 crassest statements made by ministers" at the DWP, to show how much they need this training.  Alternatively, of course, you could just sack them and hire somebody competent.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Round-up, 25 Jan 2014

I've been avoiding it.  All that publicity for IDS's speech made me want to head for the hills.  He compared himself to Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.  Well, not quite, but close enough that the journalists made that the story.  And we can be sure that he actually believes it.
I've pinched this brilliant bit of photoshopping from Twitter - Iain Duncan Smith as William Wilberforce.  Let's be clear what Wilberforce really did.  He was an MP who became the parliamentary voice for the movement to abolish the slave trade, and he succeeded in getting that through into law in 1807.  The abolition of slavery itself didn't come until 1833.  As for Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper 7th Earl of Shaftesbury); he was the driving force behind reforms to the laws which allowed child labour and appalling working conditions, and he was involved with many other reforms benefiting the working class.  Both men were evangelical Christians, believing that you couldn't save men's souls until they had decent lives.  IDS really does see himself in that tradition.  (The full text of his speech is here.)  Whenever people bring up evidence that, in so many cases, he is causing huge distress, he and his party literally don't want to know.  They never answer specifics, just repeat the generalities, because specific cases would destroy the picture they have of themselves.
Enough of IDS.  One piece of encouraging news did emerge this week.  Labour has said that it will axe the Work Programme if it gets elected.  (See the Northern Echo story.)  But only when the contracts come to an end.  It would cost far too much to terminate the contracts.  Labour plans to channel the money through local councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships - something I've advocated for a long time.  This will scare the likes of A4e, and will no doubt generate a great deal of lobbying.
And finally, the fall-out from Benefits Street goes on.  A number of people who have featured in the "show" have been arrested on charges of possessing drugs.  I can't, and shouldn't, comment on particular cases.  Anyone who is dealing drugs deserves all they get.  But I have many a time argued with people who bring up the supposedly luxurious lifestyles of those on benefits that anyone who can afford huge TVs, smartphones and foreign holidays must be either up to their eyes in debt or involved in criminality.  Sadly, this doesn't help to vindicate the vast majority of claimants.  I don't think we've heard the end of this noxious production.

Thursday 23 January 2014

A4e's accounts

The accounts for the year ending 31 March 2013 are now available.  You can get them for only £1 from the Companies House website.
Things were bad for A4e in 2011/12 but they got a lot worse.  They had an operating loss of £10.3m compared to a £1.7m loss the previous year, and an EBITDA loss of £5.8m compared to £4m profit in the previous year.  (EBITDA means earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization - yes, I had to look it up.)  They state that they actually moved into profitability in the final quarter of the year.  They had to borrow a great deal of money.  Liabilities stood at £53.4m, compared to £35.7m in the previous year.   They have a large credit facility with Thornbridge Ltd, which is owned 50/50 by Emma Harrison and her husband.  No dividend was paid.
They confirm that they closed their businesses in France and Germany, and now the focus is on the Work Programme, OLASS 4 (prison education contracts) and on expanding the business in Australia.  They also mention Advice and Enterprise (services to start-ups).  There are confident noises about the WP becoming profitable and getting TR contracts (the outsourced probation services).
It must be stressed that this is the information as at March last year.  We don't know what's happened since then, or why their credit rating was cut in the last three months or so.

Wednesday 22 January 2014


A4e's accounts for 2012 / 13 have been filed, but won't be available for a day or two.
The company will no doubt be hoping that it will get a big slice of the latest outsourcing pie, Community Work Placements (workfare to the rest of us).  The new issue of Private Eye details the provisions and payment structure of this pernicious scheme.   We knew that it would be the same companies which are involved in the Work Programme - that is government policy.  But the Eye points out that there is a potential clash of interests here.  Payment is in stages, for starting a placement, being on it for 12 weeks, 22 weeks on CWP or in work, and for staying in work for 6 months.  It's a clear disincentive to encouraging someone into short-term jobs before the 22 weeks is up.  The magazine also says that the charity sector has no use for the people who will be on workfare, and lists a few charities which have said they will have nothing to do with it.  Still, the providers are allowed to put people into placements in their own businesses, so there will be a lot of that, no doubt.   Many poor souls will find that they have spent two pointless years on the WP with, say, A4e, and then are given back to the same company for a workfare stint.  And since the DWP itself doesn't expect more than a fifth of those on workfare to find permanent jobs, it will be relatively cheap, and therefore not particularly profitable for the providers.  What is it for, then?
The fall in unemployment reported today has to be good news for those who have benefited.  Even long-term unemployment is down a bit; but everybody who is on a workfare scheme is recorded as employed, so it's not as clear as it should be.

Friday 17 January 2014

Dragging on

There's nothing to report on the A4e front; no sign of the 2012/13 accounts, and no more information on what is obviously a precarious financial position.
I've bookmarked lots of articles featuring IDS and Benefits Street, which few people would want to read.  One I recommend, though, is by Mark Steel on the Independent's website.  It's titled:  We've had ‘Benefits Street’, so how about ‘Bonus street’? A gritty look at the grim reality of life with an unearned £2m windfall".  Or you could read Nick Cohen's piece in the Spectator, titled The Tories' hunger games. (But don't follow his link to Isabel Hardman's piece in the same magazine - The fight for compassionate Conservatism - unless you want to feel nauseous.)  It's indicative of the way the programme has polarised people.  For the Tories it continues to be splendid propaganda, not least for the drive to lower the benefits cap.  As the Daily Mail reports, a particularly nasty MP, Philip Davies, used it to feed IDS the line in a debate in parliament.  "Mr Duncan Smith also revealed he thought the controversial Channel 4 show Benefits Street was helping to win the argument for reform. The Tory minister said viewers were rightly 'shocked' by programmes such as Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud, featuring people who spend their benefit money on luxuries such as cigarettes and wide-screen TVs, but that they had enabled the Government to force through measures, which he said would put an end to the abuse. Conservative MP Philip Davies said the documentaries will leave working people 'irritated' by the spending of those living on state handouts."  (Is that "compassionate Conservatism, Ms Hardman?)
For some constructive reading I recommend Guy Standing's book The Precariat, published by Bloomsbury in 2011.  It's an excellent analysis, from a sociologist's point of view, of the plight of growing numbers of people around the world, including many who read this blog.

Friday 10 January 2014

Weekend round-up

Still waiting for A4e's accounts, but as one of our commenters points out, A4e has frequently been late filing its accounts in recent years.  Perhaps of more immediate interest is the down-grading of its credit rating.  But while we await developments there are the usual attempts by the DWP to hide its own incompetence.  The news came out that there has been a blunder with the hated bedroom tax.  Anyone who was on HB before 1996 and has been on it ever since should not be subject to the new legislation; they are covered by an older law which wasn't superseded by the new one.  One estimate is that this applies to around 40,000 people, many of whom have already had to go through the misery of losing their home or trying to exist on less money.  And I reckon that many of the people who have been on HB that long will be disabled or have long-term conditions.  So the government intends to "close the loop-hole".  It's not clear whether that will mean more retro-active legislation, or whether they can just sneak it through on a Statutory Instrument, which doesn't go through Parliament.  Either way, why did those highly-paid civil service lawyers not spot this before?
The DWP tried to distract from this with news that the benefits cap is very successful.  This is perhaps the most popular of all their bites at benefits, because it seems only fair that you shouldn't get more than many people can earn.  But it obscures the fact that the bulk of the money goes to landlords, not the claimants, so if you live in an expensively-rented home and suddenly lose your job, you will lose your home as well; this is shown by the fact that the large majority of the boroughs where people have been affected are in London.
The row about Channel 4's Benefits Street rumbles on.  The Daily Mail's contribution comes from John Bird, who is the founder of the Big Issue.  It's typically confused.  Bird thinks that the show tells the truth about benefits, and he's an expert, he says, because he came through dire poverty himself.  Perhaps the worst example of right-wing hate-mongering came from Katie Hopkins on the BBC's This Week last night.  Who's Katie Hopkins?  Quite.  Her only claim to fame is that she was on The Apprentice; she now writes for the Sun, and seems to have taken the place of Kelvin McKenzie as the nutter of choice for TV producers wanting to anger their viewers.  (The Daily Star called her rent-a-gob.)  Last night she called for more welfare cuts; directly insulted Diane Abbott MP, who showed remarkable restraint by not decking her; and said, "Food banks are a con."  The rage about her on Facebook, most of it, I guess, not from benefits claimants, shows that we might just have reached a point where the general public is embarrassed by this continual demonisation of the poorest.
One bit of news about the DWP itself came from an unlikely source - the Telegraph.  It revealed that more than 1,100 DWP staff have been warned over "prying" on benefits records.  That's breaches of privacy, accessing records they had no right to see.
Finally, how's this for irony?  "BBC misleads public every day on scale of cuts, fumes Cameron".  Yes, it's the Daily Mail describing Cameron getting annoyed on Radio Merseyside when he as accused of treating Liverpool unfairly.  No wonder the BBC has become so tepid in its journalism.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Benefits Street

No, I didn't watch Channel 4's latest contribution to the government's campaign to abolish welfare.  But many of those who did have reacted strongly.  Shane Croucher in the International Business Times calls it "the latest dropping from this beastly documentary genre" and gives some real figures.  Bernadette Meaden on the Ekklesia website calls it "a misleading, harmful caricature" and describes the death threats now being received by some of those who took part.  For the mainstream press, the issue seems to be that the police are investigating possible criminal activity shown on the programme.  The Guardian quotes at length from police Superintendent Danny Long, and also from a Channel 4 spokesman who describes it as "a fair and balanced observational documentary series".  But the Guardian had to close its comments facility after 5 people had reacted with the same disgust (and 814 people up to now have approved a comment which is a re-post of Owen Jones' Facebook reaction).  The Independent hasn't allowed comments at all under its piece on the subject.
There is some feeling that, in the light of the threats to the participants, the rest of the series may be pulled.  That would be the best outcome, of course - apart from some sort of apology from the producers and Channel 4.  But I doubt it.  However, there is a glimmer of a backlash against this sort of trash.

We read that the five former A4e staff who are charged with fraud (the second group) have had their case moved to the Crown Court, where it will be heard on 3 February.

Monday 6 January 2014

Overdue accounts

Like a lot of people, I've been waiting for A4e's annual accounts to be published.  They were due by 31 December (for the year ending March 2013) and are now, according to Companies House, overdue.