Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How outsourcing works - for Atos

There was a lot of fuss about the fact that Atos is getting out of its £500m WCA contract early, citing all the abuse it has been getting.  Will they incur a financial penalty for this?  Well, if they do they can recoup the loss from their latest contract - "to extract patient records from GP surgeries as part of the controversial NHS data sharing scheme", in the words of the Telegraph yesterday.  Some boggling went on at that revelation.  Dr Sarah Wollaston (a Tory MP but sensible) asked whether the DWP would be allowed access to the database.  The answer appears to be no, but don't bank on it.  A big question in my mind is how they can maintain confidentiality when the project involves, I assume, the work of an army of people looking at both paper and digital records.
So Atos can't lose.  They still have the PIP contract, carving up the country with Capita.  That isn't going too well.  The last we heard was that most of the potential subcontractors listed on its bid pulled out, and Atos didn't have the scope to provide enough facilities.  But with another contract in the bag, shareholders need not worry.  That's the beauty of outsourcing.  Once your company is big enough there is no competition, and bodging one contract after another doesn't matter.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Unjust sanctions

Just a quick note that the Guardian journalist Shiv Malik has posted a tweet asking for contacts from people who have had their benefits "sanctioned unjustly in the last few months".  He can be contacted at
Journalists protect their sources, so don't be afraid that you could be targeted if you contact him.

Friday, 21 February 2014

An interesting week

Well, where to start?  "Welfare" has certainly been in the news this week.

On the outsourcing front, we knew that there were moves to oust ATOS from their WCA contracts and move the work to other providers.  Today we learn that the company has announced that it wants out.  They gave the information to the Financial Times, perhaps significantly, giving as the reason the abuse of their staff.  They say that they've been trying to agree an early exit for some months (the contracts are due to end in August 2015) but won't walk away until there are other providers in place.  The BBC news website reports that the government is furious at this announcement because it will probably mean that other companies will put in lower bids to take on the work than they otherwise would.  Which other companies would pick up this poisoned chalice?  Capita already has half the PIP contracts, along with ATOS, so they might be keen.  Then there are the other usual suspects, including A4e.  This is not, after all, payment by results (not officially, anyway) so it's a guaranteed income.  But would it be worth the hassle?

The row between the government and church leaders escalated this week.  27 Anglican bishops and 15 nonconformist church leaders wrote a letter, published in the Mirror, which attacks in no uncertain terms the government's creation of a "national crisis" of hardship and hunger.  This forced the whole subject onto the agenda, with much discussion on TV and radio about Cameron's claim to a "moral mission".  The debate was further fuelled by the publication of the latest sanctions figures.  Record numbers have been plunged into destitution in the year to September 2013; 897,690, including 22,840 ESA claimants.  This compares with 500,000 in the year to April 2010.  Iain Duncan Smith's response, parroted by his colleagues, was, "sanctions are used as a last resort".  We remain unclear as to whether he actually believes that.  My congratulations go to the Bishop of Manchester who, in the face of a very hostile interview on BBC radio, was extremely coherent and accurate about the hardship inflicted on individuals for no good reason.

However, a leak to the Guardian this week showed that, just when you thought they couldn't sink any lower, they do.  The idea has been considered by the DWP of charging people who have been stripped of their benefits to take the case to appeal.  At the moment 58% of appeals are successful.  This is clearly too many for the DWP, so slapping on a charge which no one could afford to pay would cut this figure admirably.

While the expected drivel poured from the right-wing commentators and their readers, I do suspect that a lot of people who had previously taken no interest in the subject have now woken up to what is going on.  It probably won't change anything in the long run, but getting all this out in the open can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


I've just heard Esther McVey lying about sanctions on Radio 4.  No surprise there.  The unemployment figures are out, and it's tempting for ignorant commentators to link the slight fall to the sanctions regime, in a simple-minded way.  Iain Duncan Smith announces even more restrictions on the ability of immigrants to claim benefits, standing on what he fondly imagines is the moral high ground; but he hasn't publicly replied to Archbishop Nichols, who is sticking to his guns.  No, he's left that to his mate Dave, who has claimed, in an extraordinary piece in the Telegraph, that the government is on a "moral mission".  He accuses the Cardinal of saying things which are not true.  "Mr Cameron insisted that no one would be left destitute by the welfare reforms and said the claim the basic safety net no longer exists is untrue."
Cameron misunderstands the concept of morality.  I'm tempted to refer to the Christian gospels, but I know that cuts no ice with a lot of people (it ought to with IDS, but apparently doesn't).  Morality starts with the way you treat individuals.  You do not sacrifice them to some self-appointed mission.  All the most monstrous dictators of the 20th century believed that individual suffering had no significance in pursuit of the grand plan.  I really don't know whether Cameron knows that he is not telling the truth when he makes his claims; but a moral person would take steps to check.  Instead, like all of his government, he has simply turned his back.  He might like to read an article in the Independent which reports a survey of GPs in their trade magazine, Pulse.  16% of the doctors have been asked to refer a patient to a food bank in the last year.  One Everton GP describes his experience of this in detail.  Hospital diagnoses of malnutrition have nearly doubled in the last 5 years, and academics have called it an emerging "public health emergency".  Now that, Mr Cameron, really is a moral matter.

Today, many people are staging demonstrations at the various offices of ATOS.  On Monday we read in the Guardian that a leaked document shows that the government is preparing to shove ATOS out of its WCA contracts.  They want, first, to bring in more contractors; and then to push ATOS out altogether.  But a competition lawyer is quoted as saying that it wouldn't be lawful, because they would have decided in advance that they were going to exclude one bidder from the tendering process.  While many would rejoice at the ousting of this company, the competition could only come from those on the government's "framework" of favoured companies.  And that means Serco, G4S, Capita and - yes - A4e.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The BBC blew it - again

BBC Newsnight tonight announces an item on "sanctions", so I watch with interest.  It goes to a food bank in Accrington (I think) and its manager talks eloquently about the hardships people are suffering.  A few people are singled out; a 61-year-old man who had worked all his life until made redundant two years ago; a young man with learning difficulties; both punished for not applying for enough jobs.  Back to the studio, and Victoria Derbyshire conducts an interview with two MPs; Debbie Abrahams (Labour), who is on the Work & Pensions select committee, and Nadhim Zahawi (Tory).  It's a sorry spectacle.  Abrahams tries to bring out the reality of sanctions, Zahawi parrots the familiar lies, and is allowed to talk over her and dominate the "discussion".  Just when you think the BBC might be finding its backbone, it caves in.

A grubby way to rubbish the Archbishop

The intervention of Cardinal Archbishop Vincent Nichols in the "welfare" debate was indeed embarrassing for the government.  As far as the Daily Mail was concerned it demanded a response.  So they have today published a lengthy piece by Dominic Lawson headlined: "A Lefty Archbishop who's generous with YOUR money - but not his flock's".
To call this article grubby is an understatement.  Lawson is the son of Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has recently reinvented himself as the spokesman of climate change deniers.  Dominic starts his piece with a slur, to direct his readers' attention away from the issue and towards the Catholic church's meanness when it comes to money.  That paves the way for a kind of character assassination.  Nichols, he says, "is entitled to his opinion" but clearly doesn't understand the issues - which concern "breaking the cycle of dependency", of course - and he doesn't understand how popular this is with his parishioners.  But "Nichols's anathema owes more to political prejudice than to religious doctrine" because the Archbishop is "tribally Labour".  Why is Nichols wrong?  Here, Lawson fails, as Tories always do, to address the specific points.  To say that the government has torn up the safety net is wrong because it is spending £94bn a year on working age benefits.  That is a non sequitur.  The safety net was a minimum income level designed to ensure that no one was completely without money, and that, as we know, has gone.  Delays in paying benefits, as cited by the Archbishop?  Well, they have actually gone down a bit since 2009/10.  Food banks?  Here it gets very dirty indeed.  "Many users may be relying on it because they have spent too much of their welfare payments on less essential items, such as the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, which now litter every high street in the nation's less affluent boroughs."  There is then one of those Tory untruths about Labour banning Jobcentres from pointing people towards food banks, and the Church of England's supposed support of this, and he ends by returning to his wife's little anecdote and using a cute biblical phrase about "motes and beams".
This is not journalism, of course; it's pure propaganda.  Perhaps the Archbishop will be heartened by the fact that the government felt it necessary to respond through its mouthpiece, the Mail.  And he will surely reflect that, according to the portrayal in the Christian gospels, Jesus was a Lefty.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Who cares?

Christian churches in this country have an honourable record, at least in recent decades, of getting up the noses of governments, particularly of the Tory kind.  I can remember a Church of England report in 1985 called Faith in the City, which really annoyed Margaret Thatcher.  The right's response is always to tell the church to keep out of politics.  And that's no doubt what they are doing now.  On Monday we read about the report of an independent commission chaired by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, on poverty and the need for the "living wage".  This was reported in the Independent, which carried an interview with the Archbishop.  He warned that, "Millions of low-paid workers are trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, and are even turning up at food banks in their lunch breaks asking for help to feed their families."  This is in vivid contrast to the government's mantra of "making work pay".  But last year IDS accused the bishops of ignoring the concerns of ordinary people!
Perhaps more embarrassing to Iain Duncan Smith, a Roman Catholic, is the intervention today of Britain's most senior Catholic cleric, Archbishop Vincent Nichols.  The Telegraph carries an interview with him, in which he says that the government's reforms have destroyed even the most basic safety net, and have become increasingly punitive.  He talks of a "crisis" and a "disgrace".  But up pops the anonymous DWP spokesperson to parrot the familiar lies (why does no one ever name this person?).
We've known for a long time that Duncan Smith tries to silence criticism on the BBC, but on Tuesday we learned that he, or his minions, tried to shut down a spoof Twitter account called "UKJobcentrePlus not".  You can read the story in the Independent.  The DWP's brand (?) and public information manager, Jon Woodcock, complained that it was set up "with deliberate and malicious intent to devalue and criticise the work of Jobcentre Plus" and that its tweets were "rude and potentially libellous".  The account was taken down.  But its creators won on appeal - and gained a lot of followers in the process.  Well done.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Fear and loathing

Many people have asked how it can be that Iain Duncan Smith keeps his job.  Perhaps the answer lies here, in a survey of how Tory party members rate the cabinet.  As you see, IDS is top.  Overwhelmingly, Tories approve of Smith and what he is doing.  So he can mess up one project after another and it doesn't matter.  He can be astonishingly rude to the select committee (to which only Labour members bothered to turn up) and it doesn't matter.  The right-wing love him, because he's engaging with the enemy, poor people, and trouncing them.
But why does the right hate the poor so much?  I've come to the conclusion that what lies behind it is fear.  Consider the case of Jack Monroe.  On paper she ticks all the boxes to attract the contempt of the comfortable.  She's young, didn't do all that well at school, became a single mother, is a lesbian and was unemployed.  How's that for a stereotype?  But Jack set up a blog about food; basically, how she fed her child on £10 a week.  Not only does she give wise advice on how to eat very cheaply; she talks eloquently about her poverty and the system which trapped her in it.  The blog became hugely popular, and Jack committed the cardinal sin; she emerged as an individual.  The media took her up.  Sainsbury's employed her in a marketing campaign.  (She has made it clear that she takes only the living wage from this work and the rest goes to various projects.)  When Channel 5 planned the wretched "debate" following Benefits Street, they invited Jack Monroe onto the panel.  And there she met the stark hatred of the right in the shape of Edwina Currie.  Jack's response can be read in this open letter, published in the Mirror.  The other spouter of vitriol was Katie Hopkins.  Both of them were reacting to an individual who challenges the stereotype.  Between them, Currie and Hopkins did the right no favours, but they showed the true face of hatred - fear.
From the late eighteenth century in Britain the elites feared the Mob.  (It generally had a capital letter because it assumed the shape, in their minds, of a single monstrous creature.)  The poor could be suppressed, but when they combined their sheer numbers made them terrifying.  Riots happened frequently, and the Mob could unleash violence and destruction which was ruthlessly put down.  Remember what happened in 2011.  Rioting broke out in a few places in Britain.  The elites reacted with courts handing down brutal sentences way in excess of what the actual offences warranted.  The position hadn't changed - the Mob must be dealt with severely before it can challenge the established order.
The right cannot deal with poor people as individuals in any way like themselves, so it demonises them.  And then it fears what that demon could do.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Question to the Prime Minister

Well done to Fiona Mactaggart MP (sorry if that sounds patronising) for raising the subject of the A4e fraud case at Prime Minister's Questions today.  She linked it to the fraud in other outsourcing companies like Serco and G4S.  She got a vague non-answer, of course, but it was good that she raised it.  Nowhere in the media has it been reported at all, apart from in the Daily Mail.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A4e fraud - first four plead guilty

The Daily Mail reports that the first four ex-A4e staff in the long drawn out fraud case pleaded guilty at court in Reading yesterday.  They admitted a total of 32 offences of fraud and forgery while working on a scheme called Inspire to Aspire, which ended in 2011.  (There's a fifth person who couldn't get to the court and will plead guilty later.)  The Mail claims credit for this case, but it was a whistle-blower who brought it all to light, and A4e has always claimed that it was their own audit processes which revealed the fraud, and they notified the police.  However it was revealed, it is embarrassing, to say the least.  Money was claimed for job outcomes which were fictitious.  The fact that this first batch has pleaded guilty means we won't get to hear the details, but it appears to have involved forging outcome forms or signatures.
Sentencing hasn't happened yet.  Eight more people are due for trial in October (!) so this drags on.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The hate campaign

It makes you wonder why Richard Desmond hates the poor so much.  But perhaps the owner of the Express and Channel 5 doesn't hate, or indeed feel anything except the lure of money for himself.
Yesterday the Express added a new word to the lexicon of far-right poor-bashing - "ghettos".  A ludicrously skewed story reckoned to have "uncovered the nation's Benefit Ghettos".  It draws on data for which it gives no source to show that an area of Blackburn has 71.9% of the working age population claiming benefits.  The rest of the story is what you'd expect, except for the fact that they do quote Jack Straw MP to the effect that there are a lot of hostels in the area, distorting the figures.  But who cares about the facts?  Who cares about the working poor who are so badly paid that they have to claim benefits?  No, these are "ghettos".  And I'm sure Desmond understands the significance of that word.
It's all in preparation for another Desmond venture, a programme on Channel 5 tonight advertised in today's Express.  It claims to be based on a YouGov poll showing that "two-thirds of Britons believe the system of state handouts needs an overhaul".  Now, I seem to remember taking part in that poll, and I realised that there was an agenda behind it.  I must have been among the 45% who thought that benefits claimants were portrayed unfairly.  However, it's an excuse for Channel 5 to put on a "debate" featuring - wait for it - "White Dee" from Benefits Street, Katie Hopkins and Edwina Currie.  Ken Livingstone is also in the line-up.  No, of course I won't be watching.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The mind of Iain Duncan Smith

The most remarkable item to pop up in the news feeds this week was in a regional paper, the Gloucestershire Echo.  It's the key to understanding the mind of Iain Duncan Smith and the battle which his opponents face.  I urge you to read it before going any further.
Okay?  You're surely bemused now.  Can this be what he really believes?  Let's take it a few sentences at a time.  He was asked if he accepted blame for the fact that the use of food banks has quadrupled in Cheltenham, according to the Trussell Trust.  IDS replied that he is "very much in support of people helping other people.  I don't even think there is a blame here."  So it's just a matter of mutual support, and not something anyone, least of all IDS, is at fault for.  Now we get the waffle:
"The reality is that first of all people who get involved with food banks, set them up, are doing what they feel is very community spirited and want to help out people who they think have got a particular issue or problem."  
This is pretty meaningless, but implies that the Trussell Trust is doing what it wants to do, and so what?  Nothing to do with me.
"The reality is [that silly phrase again, which asserts rather than argues] that usage of food banks has been rising anyway and it was rising even during the time of growth under the last Government, continuing to rise over this, most of the period you are talking about anyway is pre-the impact of welfare reforms, most of them didn't come in until the early or middle part of last year."
Food banks started in a small way under the Labour government, but their numbers have soared since 2010.  That hasn't stopped the Tories making thoroughly dishonest statements.  And what is IDS arguing here?  That the growth is not down to "welfare reforms"?  So what is the reason?  He leaves that one hanging.
"I think it is a positive thing for people to use food banks and I think if they need it, local authorities sometimes refer to food banks now because they run the social funds and instead of actually just paying money out some of them refer across."
The first part of that is just grotesque.  Then he gets on to blaming local authorities.  They "run the social funds" so they save money by sending people to the food banks rather than giving them cash.  No mention, you notice, of jobcentres doing the same thing, or of his refusal to publish, or even collect, any data on this.
"There are complex reasons why people use food banks but I think it's excellent."
Dismissive, contemptuous and stupid just about sums up that sentence.  But he hasn't finished:
"We should put this in context.  In the UK the Trussell Trust has put some figures out that say about 60,000 people use them a week but in Germany, which has a more comprehensive welfare system, one and a half million people a week use them and in Canada which has a smaller population about 800,000 a week use them."
Notice the phrase "has put some figures out".  It drips with contempt for the Trust's propaganda, and then implies that the figures are tiny anyway in comparison with other countries.  I have no idea whether his figures for Germany and Canada are correct or whether direct comparisons are possible, but it's irrelevant to the argument.
The interviewer must have felt that it was like punching blancmange.  There is no sense at all that Duncan Smith understands what's going on or why.  He literally doesn't want to know.  He has a completely fixed idea of his mission, and filters out any inconvenient fact which doesn't fit.
Mr Duncan Smith is appearing before the Work & Pensions Select Committee on Monday to answer questions about Universal Credit.  Not the PAC, as I thought, which means he won't get the sort of grilling he would have got from Margaret Hodge.  It's at 4.30, I believe.  Let's hope it's televised.