Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The shape of things to come

So now we know what's in store if we get a Conservative government in May.  Benefits will continue to be frozen - everything except those for the disabled and the elderly.  This includes ESA for the WRAG group and working tax credits.  It will affect 10 million people.  We're told that this is in the interests of fairness, because wages are static.  Now before anyone starts blaming pensioners because we're safe for the moment, just think that you'd be doing exactly what the Tories want you to do - turning your anger on the wrong people.  It's not only that pensioners vote in greater numbers than young people (and it's a myth that we most often vote Tory), it's that exempting us deflects the wrath and persuades some people that it's all our fault.  It must not be a case of everyone should suffer except the wealthy.  And you can be sure that they will come for us after the election.
For young people the prospects are very bleak.  You will get work (probably a bogus apprenticeship on £2.73 an hour, or an unpaid "internship") or you will be sentenced to community work.  Don't ask where that community work is going to be found, that will be up to the outsourcing companies that get the contracts.
That was just from George Osborne.  It left Iain Duncan Smith with a couple of announcements.  Universal Credit will be rolled out across the country next year.  (Stop laughing.)  This morning we learned that the chap in charge of it, Howard Shiplee, has quit.  He has been ill for some time.  And - the real shocker that has barely been reported by large parts of the media - IDS, without waiting for the election, is trialling the payment of benefits on smart cards, aimed at those with bad habits so they can't spend their money on alcohol or drugs.  It's for the good of their families, of course.  Apart from the moral issues here, which we've examined before, the practical issues are huge.  Not least, there is no way of stopping the trading and selling of these cards to put cash in the claimant's pocket.  And it's very clear that this would be the only way of paying benefits under a Tory government.  How does this fit with Universal Credit, which encompasses housing benefit?  Will a landlord have to accept the card?
Before anyone starts advocating UKIP as an alternative, their welfare policies are equally disgusting.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Where are they now?

There was a time when A4e would have a stand at all the main party conferences, touting their services.  I doubt very much whether that's the case this year.  How times have changed for this company!  We don't know what their financial situation is, and won't for at least 3 months, but it was pretty dire a year ago.
Gone are the days when owner Emma Harrison could pocket £8.6m in one year.  For a few brief years she enjoyed the spotlight, the celebrity status, rising to the dizzy heights of adviser to the government.  And then it all came crashing down.  An attempt to rehabilitate herself with a Channel 4 News interview in 2012 just resulted in car-crash TV.  So where is Emma now?  There have been no sightings reported.
Mark Lovell, as we reported in July, left A4e this year and went to something called The Social Assistance Partnership.  He had been with A4e since the beginning, and his departure marked the end of the original company.
Our favourite A4e director, Jonty Olliff-Cooper, left of his own accord, or so it was said.  Nothing to do with that offensive tweet, of course.  He is now working for something called "The Young Foundation [which] is a leading independent centre for disruptive social innovation. We create new movements, institutions and companies that tackle the structural causes of inequality."  Yes, well.  Effectively Jonty has also dropped off the radar.
After it all went horribly wrong, A4e engaged the services of a PR company close to Chancellor George Osborne to try to change their image.  The advice seems to have been, "Become invisible".  There are very few planted pieces in the local press these days, and the bosses avoid publicity like the plague.  The Company has shrunk its business and faces increased competition for the contracts on offer in the UK.  They pulled out of prison education contracts because they couldn't make them pay (and that doesn't appear to have been entirely A4e's fault) and are not in the running for the probation service contracts.
For a blogger following the company it's all a bit frustrating.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Job opportunity?

Just a quick post to point you jobseekers towards an opportunity you might have missed.  It's here on the Directgov site: Trainee Cafe Apprentice.  Yes, for £2.73 per hour for a 40-hour week you can train to make sandwiches and wash pots in a sandwich shop.  And you'll get an NVQ2 in Customer Service.  Is this one of the wonderful new private sector jobs the government is boasting about?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Fact and fiction

The party conference season is always depressing, but this year it's frightening as well.  I've taken to avoiding the BBC's news and politics output altogether.  So what are the important issues which are not being talked about?  
Outsourcing (or privatisation - in the public mind they're the same thing) should be in the forefront.  It is in the clamour about the NHS.  As private companies move in to pick up contracts it's pointed out that i) many are American and ii) many MPs have financial interests in them.  But creeping privatisation is happening in lots of areas.  The academy chain AET has gone into an arrangement with accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper to outsource all its non-teaching staff.  It won't stop there.  
There's a great piece by Patrick Butler in the Guardian which shows that outsourcing is about driving down costs by cutting wages.  Around 5.4 million people now work in outsourced public services, and it's being driven, particularly in the "care" sector, by the cuts to local authority budgets.  That's how this government has achieved its aim, by pushing the responsibility back onto local councils and then claiming that it's their fault.
How is that veteran of outsourcing, the Work Programme, going?  Swimmingly if you believe the government.  But the Welfare News Service site did an excellent analysis of the figures showing just how badly it's letting down the unemployed.  A4e, of course, spun it frantically.  "A recent report by Europe Economics, an independent research company commissioned by the Employment Related Services Association, has also estimated that around 100,000 jobs for the long term unemployed would not have taken place without the programme and that £18 billion in value to the UK economy is likely to be generated by the Work Programme."  Neither of those figures bear examination.  
Let's hear some pearls of wisdom from Leo McKinstry of the Express: "Under Work And Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith the Government has rooted out abuses, introduced tough sanctions, ensured that work pays more than the dole and tackled the housing benefit scandal where jobless claimants could live in luxurious accommodation courtesy of the taxpayer."  In any field except journalism and politics this would be regarded as symptomatic of delusional illness.
If you have thoughts on the conferences relevant to this blog, please comment.  (I don't promise to publish unless you stick to the rules, basically be relevant, literate and polite.)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The outsourcing scandal revealed

When it was revealed that G4S and Serco had been overcharging by millions on the offender tagging contracts we were assured by Chris Grayling that they would be barred from bidding for any more contracts until a thorough investigation had been carried out (including an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office).  But then, a few days after G4S were pronounced "cleared" (though not be the SFO)
they were included in the list of bidders for the probation contracts - so they must have been tendering while supposedly barred.  Well, it's now clear; they were never barred in the first place.  That's just one of the revelations to come out of the latest hearings of the Public Accounts Committee.  As the Guardian reported on Monday, the chair of the PAC, Margaret Hodge, was shocked.  The hearings continued today, and the shambles which outsourcing has become was laid bare.  Two of the top civil servants in the procurement area are fairly new in the job, and have bags of experience.  They were interviewed today, and said they had found that the people doing the work didn't have the skills, experience or competence for the job.  There was no contract management.  Applications to vary the contracts were numerous, and with one particular contract there had been so many that no one could now remember what the original contract specified.  Basically (although they didn't put it like this) the companies have been running rings round the government.
There is obviously a lot more to come out about specific contracts.  Right at the end Margaret Hodge reduced the G4S chap to quivering silence when she demanded to know if it was true that in the probation contracts it was specified that if the contract was terminated by either side before it was completed, the company would get the full amount of the contract.  Apparently it is true - and she didn't like it.
The last Labour government started this outsourcing bonanza.  When the coalition got in they didn't stop to find out whether the competence was there to do it; they just went ahead and outsourced everything that hadn't already been flogged off.  And we have been paying the price.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

News round-up

With so much going on in the world the media, particularly the BBC, can happily ignore the issues which concern the poorest in Britain.  They managed - just - to report the fact that the government lost a vote on the bedroom tax.  It was a private member's bill, introduced by a Lib Dem (!) to water down the current rules by exempting disabled people who need the extra room or have adapted homes, as well as those who can't be found a smaller home to move to.  Labour backed it and the government lost by 306 votes to 231.  It will now go to committee stage and is unlikely to get through its third reading and into law.  But it's a start.  Unfortunately the BBC managed to spread misinformation.  The website piece says that the original changes "were designed to ensure social tenants get the same treatment as private tenants, who do not get any rent support".  I don't know what he means by "rent support", but this suggests that private tenants don't get housing benefit, which is untrue.  The piece also quotes Iain Duncan Smith as claiming that the changes would cost the Treasury £1 billion, a figure which is as accurate as all IDS's numbers.  

Then we read about the "attitude to work" assessments which the gormless Esther McVey is now going to impose on the unemployed.  It's an idea borrowed from Ingeus, apparently.  You can read the Daily Mail version if you really want to, or the less hysterical version in the Independent.  Although she's presenting it as voluntary, and as a way of not putting people on courses they don't need, there are obviously fears that it will be another way of catching people out and sanctioning them.

On the outsourcing front, there was an interesting article in the Independent about the race to, in effect, privatise the probation service.  It suggests that there are 5 companies involved - Capita, Sodexo, Amey, Interserve and Carillion - and that they would be well advised to have nothing to do with it.  They are very unlikely to make a profit.

Finally, please read the Guardian piece by John Lanchester about poverty and inequality.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Proud to work?

The DWP Press Office has been infamous for a long time.  It's staffed by civil servants who are supposed to adhere to the Civil Service Code, which says that they should have "integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality".  But perhaps they're working under the direction of the DWP's Director of Communications, Richard Caseby, who appears to have no such scruples (he's a former managing editor of the Sun).  Back in January the Press Office put out a press release referring to "welfare hand-outs", a term the Daily Mail obligingly repeated.  Then last week came this:
There was no pretence that this was anything other than straight-forward propaganda.  Objective and impartial it was most certainly not.  But I bet the intern (unpaid?) who gets to do the graphics has fun.

Today they attempted a rather different Twitter campaign, one which the Press Office didn't invent but which has decidedly sinister overtones.  It's called "Proud to Work", and it seems to be the creation of the ERSA, the work programme providers' trade body - but clearly they are all working together with this.  The DWP re-tweeted the highly dubious statement that the "Work Programme will deliver £18bn to economy".  Immediately afterwards came re-tweets of stuff from Interserve, A4e and Working Links (not on this screen capture).

What I find most disturbing about this is the "proud to work" tag.  It's subtle.  It suggests that those who are not working are not proud, have no pride.  It suggests that unemployment is voluntary, the result of lack of self-respect.  Perhaps it suggests other things to you.

Is there anything that can be done about the DWP Press Office?  Not at this stage in the parliament, I think.  There doesn't seem to be any mechanism for opposition MPs to complain about it effectively.  What it proves, however, very clearly, is that this government, and Iain Duncan Smith in particular, work closely with the right-wing press to spread lies and damaging propaganda.  If they win in 2015, it will only get worse.