Thursday, 29 May 2014

Not accountable to anybody

A curious story popped up in my Google alerts the other day, from the Rotherham Business News website.  It reported on the new "Help to Work" programme, then went on to the fact that Rotherham Council had discussed a review into the Work Programme as it operated locally, with Serco and A4e.  The report was particularly concerned about sanctions.  Both companies were invited to take part in the review, in person or in writing, but declined, "with A4e taking the view – based on advice from their Department for Work and Pensions account manager - that it would be inappropriate to respond to the panel's questions."  I'm not entirely sure what a DWP account manager is.  But clearly A4e don't see themselves as accountable to anyone.
The DWP has shied away from investigating another provider, Seetec.  Private Eye broke the story some time ago.  Two whistle-blowers had reported fraud around Seetec's Work Choice contract.  The DWP has now "investigated" and exonerated the company.  But it didn't interview the whistle-blowers, and claimed that it had all the evidence needed in their emails - which contained no detail, just a short summary.  The Eye says that Margaret Hodge is on the case.
It's staggering that the value of outsourcing contracts has risen by 168% in the first quarter of 2014.  It's gone to £2.1bn.  In local government it's up by 60%.  And more than half the contracts are first-time outsourcing deals.  The government wants more.  Private Eye also reported in the latest issue on a meeting held by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, with bosses from G4S, Serco, Capita and Atos, to discuss "how to develop the government's commercial reforms".  Apparently they discussed "greater openness and trust between government and its suppliers".  But of course, you can't have openness when commercial firms are involved, unless you change the law.  And businesses are lobbying hard to avoid that.
There was an excellent, if chilling, article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian last week.  Read it and weep.  Even if the Tories are rejected at the next election it will be too late to undo their sell-off of our public services.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Burying bad news

You probably missed this.  Only readers of the Guardian and the Independent got to know about a damning indictment of Iain Duncan Smith's massive failure, Universal Credit.  The news was sneaked out at the weekend when attention was elsewhere.  (Not that the BBC would have mentioned it anyway.)  The government has a body called the Major Projects Authority which monitors progress on big, expensive schemes.  It then codes them as green, amber or red, the last being for something that is “unachievable within reasonable timescales and to a reasonable budget without urgent remedial action”.  And that was the code it was going to give to Universal Credit, a step down on last year.  But, according to the Independent, IDS managed to stop it.  Instead UC has been excluded from the list altogether on the grounds that it has been "reset" since February.  Clever, eh?  Our friend the DWP spokesman, wearily having to defend the move, just trotted out the stuff he knows no one believes: "The reality is that universal credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way. It's already operating in 10 areas and will start expanding to the rest of the north-west in June.  Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work."  Notice how that last bit has nothing to do with UC.
Duncan Smith's habit of refusing to tell his employers (us) anything which reflects badly on him, or which we might not like, is now ingrained.  He told the Work & Pensions select committee that he didn't have to tell them everything because he ran the department, not them.  He has refused a court order to publish the list of organisations involved in workfare.  Meanwhile, the latest Work Programme Official Statistics document was very quietly put out, with no one taking much notice.  (It's here if you're interested.)  The success rate has gone down a bit.  Since it started, around 19% of its alumni have got a job, but for at least a third of those it was only temporary work.  It's the number of ESA people, they claim, which is bringing the outcome rate down.  (A4e scores just under the average for outcomes at 12 months.)  It's another huge slab of wasted money; and more follows it into the pockets of the corporates as "Help to Work" gets under way.
But with the elections over IDS can face the public with a message his favourite papers have made a big deal out of; that they're planning a "crackdown" to limit immigrants' benefits even further.  Except that not many immigrants claim benefits anyway.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

There are no words ...

Martin Hadfield was 20 years old when he died.  He got a job as a landscape gardener when he left school but lost his job in April last year.  His step-father said that, "Martin never claimed any money or benefits in his life.  He got nothing off the government and was proud not to."  In the space of 3 months he applied for about 40 jobs, unsuccessfully.  Before a meeting at the Bury Jobcentre he updated his CV.  But, his step-father claimed, the bureaucracy was "ridiculous" and the meeting "unproductive".  The following day Martin Hadfield hanged himself.
How do I know all this?  It's in the Express.  With no sense of irony, let alone shame, the Express reports the tragic suicide of an unemployed young man, one who was too proud to claim benefits.  This is the paper which peddles relentless hatred against the poor and unemployed, which uses a special, vicious language when writing about them.  It's the paper which would have classed this tragic young man as a feckless, idle, work-shy scrounger if he'd had the temerity to claim benefits (sorry, hand-outs).  Presumably its editor Hugh Whittow makes no connection between this death and the abuse vomited by his "journalists".  There won't be even a tinge of embarrassment at Express HQ.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Richard Caseby spat

Another story you will have missed if you rely on the BBC.  I first came across it when the Guardian's Patrick Butler tweeted the link this morning to a "guest blog" piece on the Press Gazette site.  It's a nasty attack on the Guardian for what the author calls smears and inaccuracies about the DWP.  It's personal and vicious.  And it's written by Richard Caseby, who happens to be Director of Communications at the DWP.  And he also happens to be a former managing editor of the Sun and the Sunday Times, which explains the personal animosity.  But he's a civil servant now, so the abusive article is inexcusable.
Butler continued to post links which helped to explain the background.  Then the Huffington Post took up the story, giving the context.  Finally (perhaps) there came a masterly piece by the veteran journalist Michael White in the Guardian.  The attack on the Guardian was "reckless", he says, considering that he is a civil servant, and IDS should "have a quiet word with his pit-bull".
(I have to amend that last para.  It wasn't "finally"; there's another Guardian piece tonight.)
All this really does matter.  The DWP press office has long been a joke, and no wonder.  IDS has very successfully put the frighteners on the BBC, which now declines to report anything to do with his department.  Now Caseby is trying to bully one of the few sources of honest reporting left in the media.

The mess that is Universal Credit

If you depended on the BBC for your news - and apparently many still do - or if you thought that the Sun, the Mail and the Express were newspapers, you would know nothing about Universal Credit beyond the vague assurances that it's coming and will "make work pay".  But there are still some real journalists who take an interest in such matters.  One of them is Emily Dugan, who wrote a disturbing piece for the Independent on Saturday.  She went to Warrington, one of the pilot areas, and spoke to the people who are having to suffer the consequences of UC; the claimants whose benefit wasn't paid or who found themselves in rent arrears because the money which was supposed to go straight to the landlord didn't; the Housing Associations trying to cope with a haphazard system which puts tenants at risk of eviction through no fault of their own; the CAB worker who says that the problems are increasing.
Sheila Gilmore MP is on the Work & Pensions select committee.  She has written a piece on the Progress website about what they are being told and why they don't believe it.  The meaningless waffle they get from civil servants is familiar to many of us, but it's trying to hide the fact that UC is a grotesque failure.
There are still only about 6,000 people on UC, and they are all the "easy" cases - single, no complications.  Yet the IT obviously doesn't work even for them.  I reckon that the plan for the Tories is simply to coast towards the 2015 election, delaying the roll-out.  After that, whoever gets in can make the decision on whether to cancel the whole grisly project or to plough on since the only people who will suffer don't count.

The same may well apply to Help to Work.  It was supposed to have started, but the workfare component was delayed to give at least the semblance of legitimacy to G4S's chunk of the contracts (no one was fooled but the DWP doesn't care).  The rest of it - signing on every day, spending all day every day doing "jobsearch" in the Jobcentre - was never feasible and hasn't started either.  But as far as Iain Duncan Smith is concerned, who cares?  The propaganda has been successful beyond his wildest dreams.  And there are very few journalists out there willing to report the truth.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Another buy-out in "Welfare to Work" industry

It's only a few weeks since Ingeus was bought by the American company Providence.  Now another w2w provider has been bought out, this time by a British company.  Staffline has bought Avanta for £45m.  It says that Avanta generates £70m, and all of this is in the w2w sector.  The Financial Times says that the providers are "braced for a wave of consolidation as they seek to bolster their position ahead of the next round of contracts in 2016".
So is A4e going to be next?  They were hopeful of going into profit a year ago, and if both Ingeus and Avanta are worth buying because they're making money, why not A4e?  Is the brand too toxic?  Is Emma Harrison too attached to her company to let it go?
All of this could be a problem for the government.  Staffline reckons that the DWP is happy because "they want fewer bigger providers who are easier to manage".  But, as the FT points out, it could well mean that these companies become "too big to fail".

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Ignorance is bliss

Have you ever wondered why so few people know what's going on in "welfare" these days?  Ever shouted at the radio or TV when someone pontificated on, say, the Work Programme without appearing to have any knowledge of the subject?  Ever despaired at the sheer ignorance of most people about unemployment?  Then you might have been cheering this morning when the Today programme on Radio 4 decided to look at whether all that self-employment in the latest job figures is genuine.  Two experts were asked; one was a woman whose name I forget, the other Professor Roy Sainsbury.  I'd never heard of him, which is a pity because he's head of the Social Policy Research Unit at York University - and he knows what he's talking about.  Speaking lucidly and quickly (important if you want to get your point across without being interrupted) he pointed out that Work Programme providers were pushing people into spurious self-employment because it enabled them, the companies, to claim for a job outcome under PbR.  Cue astonishment from John Humphrys, who was doing the interview.  "You mean they get paid for it?" he gasped.  And well he might.  When did you last hear a clear and honest examination of anything this government is doing in the name of "welfare reform" on the BBC?  Oh, I know they've looked at food banks, the bedroom tax etc., but always with a timid eye on "balance" for fear of IDS launching another complaint.  At least Humphrys learned something new this morning.

However, the government's apparent ignorance about sanctions cannot be excused.  They have repeatedly been confronted with real cases of people being punished for trivial or non-existent offences, by Labour MPs and others, but have insisted that it's not true.  That has become more difficult since the Mirror published revelations on Tuesday.  Iain Duncan Smith, along with Esther McVey and Neil Couling, head of Jobcentre Plus, attended a meeting last week with a whistle-blower who has worked for the DWP for more than 20 years.  The man told them, "“The pressure to sanction customers was constant.  It led to people being stitched-up on a daily basis.”  He went on "“We were constantly told ‘agitate the customer’ and that ‘any engagement with the customer is an opportunity to ­sanction’.”  The targets, he said, are sometimes referred to as "expectations".  And this led to managers stitching up claimants by altering their appointments without telling them so that they missed the appointment and were sanctioned.  They were told to "inconvenience" the clients and to regard them as scroungers.  It's a horrific account.  And now the Labour MP Debbie Abrahams is agitating for an independent enquiry into sanctions.  It won't happen, of course.  

There's one area of outsourcing on which most of us prefer to remain ignorant.  Read Polly Toynbee's Guardian piece headed "Now troubled children are an investment opportunity".

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Telling porkies for a living

YouGov sends out a regular survey which includes questions on the companies which you would be proud or embarrassed to work for.  I usually leave these blank, partly because the companies they list are no better or worse than any others, but mostly because a job is a job.  However, there are two organisations which I would indeed be embarrassed, or even ashamed, to work for; the Daily Express and the DWP Press Office.

There are obviously people who are quite happy to work for the Express.  One is Giles Sheldrick, who wrote yesterday's appalling article headlined "6,000 claimants forced into jobs as 'war on handouts' continues".  You hardly need to read more.  But the sub-heading is "Thousands of feckless families are off benefits and finally earning their keep a year after the Tories declared war on handout Britain."  It's based on ONS figures which, of course, show nothing of the kind.  How many people would have got jobs anyway?  But IDS is quoted, the odious Tory Taxpayers Alliance is quoted (and Lord Freud and Anne Widdecombe), and it's all larded with the sort of language which would land Mr Sheldrick in court if he used it of, say, an ethnic minority.  Some of the article cannot be put down to ignorance.  Take: "About 300 of the worst offenders pocketed £47,000 a year – the equivalent of a £70,000-a-year taxable ­ salary – official figures show.  A further 900 got up to £42,000 a year."  No mention of what Sheldrick surely knows - that most of that goes straight into the pockets of landlords.  Or take: "Workshy families helped create an annual benefits bill of £167.7billion – up £27billion from 10 years ago."  That bill, as Sheldrick surely knows, includes state pensions, which actually make up the bulk of it.  So are we to conclude that Sheldrick was simply given the 6,000 figure and told to cobble together an article on it, so he reached for all the cliches with no sense that what he was doing was wrong?  

The DWP Press Office is becoming an increasing cause for concern.  There's an excellent summary of those concerns on the ilegal website.  The Press Office consists of civil servants, who should be bound by the Civil Service Code.  They should politically impartial.  Yet their press releases often are not.  In January they issued a press release which referred to "welfare handouts".  This was taken up by the Daily Mail as a headline, as you'd expect.  You can read what followed on the excellent Benefits and Work site.  When challenged, there was no sense at the DWP that they had done anything wrong.  The DWP Press Office also has a Twitter account, on which it posts utterly misleading graphics and statements which cannot be construed as politically neutral.  

I'm beginning to think that I would also be ashamed to work for the BBC.  But that's for another day.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


There's a job going with A4e; a high-powered, responsible job for which you'll need to be well-qualified.  It's as Public Affairs Advisor, and you can find the advert here.  
But notice that "public affairs" seems to mean political engagement.  You will have to have "knowledge and experience of UK politics, either within the political system at a national or local level, in a consultancy or an in-house role".  You will, amongst other things, be managing "ongoing constituency contact programmes", "delivering political events, e.g. fringes at party conference" and "providing advice on political developments".  And all for £26-28k a year.  That sounds like a heck of a lot to many jobseekers, but not if you need that background and qualifications and have to live in London.
It reminds us that A4e, like other outsourcing companies, is not just selling its services in an open market place.  Political contacts and engagement are essential.  At best, it's lobbying.
Which reminds us, whatever happened to our friend Jonty Olliff-Cooper? His twittering is still protected after that fiasco of his insulting the unemployed while working for A4e.  It seems that he has taken his expertise to the management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company.  

Monday, 5 May 2014

Back to work?

It's back to work tomorrow - assuming you have any work to return to.  So what has been going on over this rather disjointed few weeks?

On the outsourcing front, I would have said until an hour ago not very much.  A4e set up a new website, reminding us of one of the less well known aspects of their business - "Independent Living Services".  This all began 9 years ago when local councils had to offer direct payments for social care, so that users could shape their own care packages and employ people directly.  A4e were quick to see an opportunity here and scooped up contracts.  It didn't always work out well; Middlesborough council was not happy with how the contract was delivered and brought it back in-house.  But the company is now running the show in 15 areas.  Let's hope the website doesn't herald the regrowth of all those websites A4e used to have before the makeover.
There's now a new privatisation in the pipeline (although A4e won't be involved in this one).  The Guardian has the story that the land registry is to be flogged off.  That may not mean much to many people, but it's the body which keeps all the records of who owns what land and property in this country.  The paper says: "Former executives from the body ....... say that a sell-off 'beggars belief' because it will allow the private sector to adjudicate on what can be conflicting interests between sellers, buyers, lenders and neighbours."
George Monbiot, writing in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian, may have been reading this blog.  If not, he's one of the few who has picked up on the fact that G4S must have been bidding for contracts while it was supposedly banned.  He says: "Was it ever banned at all?  Six days after the moratorium was lifted G4S won a contract to run HMRC services.  A fortnight later it was chosen as one of the companies that will run the government's Help to Work scheme.  How did it win these contracts if in the preceding months it wasn't allowed to bid?"  Quite right.  But why have so few journalists picked up on this?

A story doing the rounds in the press tonight seems shocking to some, but unsurprising to many.  Labour MP Sheila Gilmore asked the wretched Esther McVey a question about sanctions and got a worrying answer.  At the moment JSA claimants are not required to apply for zero hours jobs.  Under Universal Credit they will be.  Jobcentre "coaches" will be able to force people to take such work, on pain of having their benefit stopped.  (See the Guardian.)  The DWP confirmed this.  Gilmore pointed out that this would stop people taking training courses to improve their prospects.  Others have said that people will be caught in a trap; told to increase their hours or be sanctioned while unable to increase their hours.  But this was always part of the point of UC, in the wonderful world of Iain Duncan Smith.