Wednesday, 13 May 2015


Perhaps Emma Harrison should have waited before selling A4e.  The Tory victory in the election sent the price of shares in outsourcing companies skywards.  G4S's rose by 7.35%, Serco's by 5.95% and Capita's by 6.72%.  Ah well, £20m will have to do.

Friday, 8 May 2015


Since the demise of A4e I've waited to formally close this blog until after the election.  It's been a hard day; but not as hard for me as for the people who can now see no end to their misery.  There were only three bright spots in the results; Galloway, Farage and, of course, Esther McVey.
So what do I do now?  There is no point in my blogging about "welfare reform".  There are lots of blogs and websites out there, and active groups too, which fight that more effectively than I can.  If you have any (sensible) suggestions for another challenge I can take on via the internet I'll be glad to consider them.
Meanwhile I want to say thank you.  To the journalists who, usually without their knowledge, helped me, but especially to Solomon Hughes of Private Eye and Job Rabkin of Channel 4 News.  To the many commenters, some of whom posted harrowing stories and left us wondering what happened to them after that.  And to the faithful regular readers and commenters who gave me encouragement, links to stories and perceptive comments.  Some of you have been with me from the very beginning.  Thanks especially to Ian.
Bye for now.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A4e sale - the reactions

Some more reactions have appeared on the sell-off of A4e.  Of the mainstream media, only the Financial Times reports it.  They say that Emma Harrison owned 87% of the company, whereas others say 85% and City AM says 85.5%.  All agree that she gets £20m out of the deal.  All the reports point out that Staffline already owns EOS and Avanta, and will now control a large chunk of the market; City AM says 23%.  The FT says: "The 16 private sector suppliers of the government’s welfare-to-work programme have been engaged in a wave of consolidation as they seek to bolster their position ahead of the next round of contracts in March 2017".  It also says that A4e employs 3,000 people, but the Yorkshire Post says the figure is 2,200.  The newly enlarged company will hold 9 WP contracts, two more than Ingeus (which is now owned by an American company).  No one seems to think this is a problem.
The financial websites naturally focus on the money.  Investor Interactive reports that Staffline's shares "shot up by 18%" on the announcement and is very chirpy about its future profitability.  The Yorkshire Post looks wider.  They do call Harrison an entrepreneur, which I have always maintained is untrue; and they quote the boss of Staffline on why the name A4e will not be retained, unlike that of Avanta.  He says that the A4e brand is "unfortunately too tarnished".  The paper also tries to get a comment from Emma Harrison herself; but when contacted all she would say was "I’m sure you’ve had all the press releases. Thanks for calling, bye."  Charmingly, they add "It is thought that she will devote her time to charity work."  

Monday, 27 April 2015

That's it, then. A4e sold

Yes, it's confirmed (and thanks to my correspondent for the early tip-off).  A4e has been sold to Staffline Group for £34.5m.  The story is here.
Staffline has acquired the entire issued share capital for £23.5m.  That's almost £20m for Emma Harrison, who owned 85% of the shares.  There are more complications, but that's basically it.
Staffline reckons A4e is a "profitable, cash generative business" and the acquisition is good for the company.  Remember that all that cash is straight from the pockets of tax-payers.
A4e's staff have been told by email this morning about the deal.  They now face waiting to hear about their future.  Andrew Dutton and the entire group board will also be looking for work.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A4e sold?

I've had a tip-off that A4e has been sold and the staff will be informed on Monday.  Since I can't confirm that, I won't go into any more detail.  If it's true it raises some interesting questions.

Last night on Newsnight there was supposed to be a debate about "welfare" with representatives from Labour and the Conservatives.  Labour's Rachel Reeves and Stephen Timms were already on their way when they were told it had been cancelled - the Conservatives had pulled out.  It seems that Mark Harper, minister for the disabled, had withdrawn with two hours notice.  So, since we're now under election rules, the producers couldn't empty-chair him.  Instead there was a "panel" on which Fraser Nelson spouted egregious Conservative tripe and Will Hutton talked sense.  Also there was Deirdre Kelly ("White Dee"), because the media now treat her as some sort of representative of the unemployed.  It was terrible.  The Daily Politics has been holding a series of debates among party spokespeople on various areas of government, and on May 5th there's to be one on "welfare", including Iain Duncan Smith.  The editor assures me, via Twitter, that IDS won't withdraw and, no, it isn't already recorded, it goes out live.  We'll see.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Daily Mail's take on the sentencing

Daily Mail readers apparently need pictures.  So the paper's report on the sentencing in the A4e fraud case comes with lots of pictures, including two of Emma Harrison.  But accuracy, not a quality conspicuous in the Mail at any time, has deserted it today.  Harrison is called "David Cameron’s millionaire former jobs tsar".  Er .... no.  She was "family champion", which meant little.  They do acknowledge this later, but it doesn't excuse the initial lazy mistake.  Then, after an accurate account of the sentencing - they couldn't really get that wrong - there's a box entitled "How the Mail exposed fraud against taxpayers".  "The scandal of the massive taxpayer fraud at A4e was exposed by the Daily Mail three years ago," they say.  They do talk about the whistle-blowers, but the claim that it was the Mail which exposed the fraud is ludicrous.  The whole story of Harrison's downfall is re-told.
Let's not allow the Mail to re-write history.  Yes, it was their story which brought the £8.6m payout to the attention of many more people than had read this blog, Private Eye, the Guardian or the Telegraph.  The reports they ran for nearly a week were probably responsible for Harrison's humiliation.  But the Mail didn't "expose" anything. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sentencing in the fraud case

The sentences have now been handed down on the 10 A4e employees convicted of fraud, forgery and conspiracy.  The longest sentence is on Charles McDonald - 40 months imprisonment for 6 counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.  Five other people got prison sentences; the rest got suspended sentences, various lengths of "unpaid work" and costs.  You can read the full list on the Thames Valley Police website here.  
A4e has issued a media statement on its own website.  They say :"We note that the judge in her sentencing remarks dismissed claims that a culture of dishonesty existed within our business.  We also note that those who made these claims raised no concerns about workplace practices or culture until they were confronted with the proof of their own dishonest behaviour."  (Well, they wouldn't, would they?)  However, they still claim that "we uncovered" the "irregularities", despite the fact that it was a whistle-blower who drew their attention to what was going on.
So that's over.  I can't summon up much sympathy for these people, but for all of them it's a huge price to pay.

Monday, 30 March 2015

A4e fraud case gets publicity at last

Sentencing has begun this week on the 10 A4e employees who were convicted of fraud last year.  And, at last, the mainstream media have decided to take notice.  The Guardian's report is restrained.  The Independent goes into more detail, and reports a defendant's barrister as accusing the company of fostering "a culture of dishonesty".  Perhaps the writer, Emily Dugan, has been reading this blog.  She ends with a list of "previous A4e scandals", including a contract it lost in Teeside after forging signatures; the laptop containing personal data of clients stolen from an employee's home; and the Edinburgh case where a tribunal ruled that A4e were wrong to sanction a client who wanted to be accompanied by a representative.  
The Mail, as we might expect, goes to town on the story, bringing Emma Harrison into it.  Unfortunately, they get it wrong, saying that Harrison "was forced to step down from her role after fraud allegations first came to light in 2012".  As we know, Harrison's downfall was nothing to do with the fraud.  
Sentencing continues this week, and perhaps the papers won't bother to report the outcomes.  But this is a bad way to get a decent price for the company as Harrison tries to sell it.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Watching A4e - the highlights (3)

Let's go back to an extraordinary week just over 3 years ago.  In January 2012 the Telegraph looked at A4e's published accounts for the year to March 2011 and reported two facts, in separate sentences.  Emma Harrison owned 85% of the shares; and the company had paid out £11m in dividends.  I reached for my calculator and did the sums; £8.6m for Harrison.  With her salary as Chair it came to a pay-out of £9.5m.  I dashed off a blog post.  Re-reading that, I didn't write the startling headline I thought I did.  But it was enough.  A writer for Private Eye who reads the blog saw the post and checked the figures (this isn't guesswork - he confirmed it).  His deadline for copy for the magazine was close, and he went with what became the killer fact - Harrison had paid herself £8.6m out of public funds.  It was early in February and the timing was excellent.  The Public Accounts Committee was about to grill people from the welfare-to-work industry, including A4e.  We know that members of the committee read the Eye (and I believe at least one follows this blog).  So that was the stick with which to beat the hapless chap from A4e - £8.6m.
What was the reaction in the media?  At first, they were not very interested.  The Guardian covered it, in sober fashion, as did the Telegraph.  And then, nothing.  It was all very disappointing.  What more did they want?  But then the Daily Mail decided to wade in, all guns blazing.  Let's be clear, I am not a fan of the Mail.  Just the opposite.  But this time they had done their research and decided to trash Emma Harrison, comprehensively.  The article was devastating, tearing into her lifestyle, her history and her company.  It was horribly personal.  And they didn't stop there; there were several more articles through what must have been a dreadful week for Harrison.  The BBC stayed silent on the matter and one could only wonder if there was some sort of political censorship going on.  At last, after several days, Paul Mason was allowed to make a brief report on Newsnight.
It all made Harrison's position untenable.  She announced that she had resigned from her role as the government's "family champion"; and 24 hours later came the news that she was standing down as Chair of A4e.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Fair shares

The only news on the A4e sell-off came on Monday with a piece on the FE Week website speculating that Newcastle College Group could take over the company.  But this only refers to the welfare-to-work part of the business.
That A4e is failing is shown by the release of the "adjusting referrals" list.  This is where the DWP takes away referrals (new clients) from the WP provider which performs worse in an area and gives them to the better performer.  Referrals mean potential profits, so this is meant to punish poor job outcome performance.  A4e have contracts in 5 of the 18 areas; and in all 5 it's A4e which has lost.  So the company is clearly struggling.  On its website A4e comments on the latest statistics, but without mentioning at all the fact that it lost out.  It talks about the huge increase in the proportion of ESA referrals but, for outcomes, talks in raw numbers rather than percentages, always a sign that people are hiding something.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Emma Harrison and the media

Looking back on the story of A4e, I'm struck by the relationship over the years between its owner Emma Harrison and the media.  To say that she was the face of the company is a gross understatement.  She seemed to see the company as a reflection of herself.  Her picture was prominent in their offices rather as dictators demand huge portraits of themselves all over their countries; and as the company grew so did her sense that it was all about her.  Staff were "rewarded" by being invited to weekends camping in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall.  The select few got to have "tea with Emma".  Most of the employees saw this for what it was, but daren't say so out loud.  Yet the media were continually charmed by her.
I didn't see the Secret Millionaire programme she made - and I'm glad of that.  But whenever she was interviewed about her supposed area of expertise something strange happened.  Harrison appeared on the Daily Politics once and was taken apart by Andrew Neil.  Yet about a year later she appeared again, and got very soft treatment, as if Neil had forgotten the first interview entirely.  Then she appeared on the same programme as "guest of the day" and contributed absolutely nothing.  Channel 4's worthy Benefit Busters series featured two films made in A4e offices, and one of those at least should have set alarm bells ringing about what was happening in New Deal - but didn't.  In a brief interview after the second film Harrison bragged about her contacts in government.  It was then put to her that a big problem for the unemployed was that short-term work meant long delays in getting benefits again when the work stopped.  What should be done about that?  Her reply was memorable: "How should I know?"
On Radio 4's The Moral Maze it was Harrison herself who had to correct the presenter, who thought A4e was a charity.  And on the Today programme the interviewer, Justin Webb, seemed mesmerised by her, asking no relevant questions and letting her talk rubbish.  A high point (or low, depending on your point of view) came with her starring role in Famous Rich and Jobless, a horribly exploitative series of poverty porn.  (Even today the BBC's website page for the programme describes A4e as "the largest employment agency in the world, responsible for getting thousands of people back to work".)  Harrison was supposed to be an expert, helping and guiding.  One unemployed man was recommended to go to a specialist agency.  Problem solved?  No.  After the series was shown he was still out of work and very bitter towards Harrison, who had promised help.  She couldn't do anything, she said, because A4e didn't operate in his area.  In another series on another channel Harrison was pitted against another expert to find a job for someone who was "hard to help".  She solved it neatly - by calling in a favour from a friend to give the lad a trial at a job.  And she won.
Harrison had become a celebrity, employing a celeb agency to get her work, and she popped up regularly on such diverse shows as Eggheads (I missed that) and Masterchef (as a guest at a dinner to sample the contestants' efforts).
It must have been hard when all that stopped so abruptly.  Perhaps that's why she agreed to the interview on Channel 4 News, long after her fall from grace, when the A4e WP results were leaked.  Surely the media would be kind to her again?  But that was in the past, and it was a disaster.
The media can build you up, but they can also bring you down.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Highlights (2)

One of the surprises of writing this blog has been the number of contacts I've made.  There was a steady trickle of journalists and researchers from the start.  Most were planning a TV or radio programme and wanted either information or, most often, contacts.  Most of these programmes didn't happen.  One independent TV producer wanted employees of A4e, who he would film in silhouette, preserving their anonymity.  I tried to explain that people working in the sector wanted above all to keep their jobs, and such whistle-blowers were not likely to be forthcoming.  He was adamant that he could do it.  He didn't.  Another, who travelled quite a distance to talk to me, was well on the way to producing an item for a news programme, but it got overtaken by events.
A researcher talked to me at length, asking almost immediately if I would take part in the programme.  I saw this as a test of my confidence in what I was telling her, and said yes.  Later, when the programme had been put together, she asked me again to take part.  I said I would if it was really necessary but didn't want to.  She said that was okay, they had a whistle-blower.  The programme was scheduled.  But just 3 days before it was due to go out it was pulled.  All I could gather was that the whistle-blower had been threatened with legal action and the channel's lawyers had decided it was too risky.  Chalk that one up as a victory for A4e.
Another journalist I talked to was looking for information on outsourcing and welfare-to-work in general.  I felt like saying that she was getting paid for her work and I wasn't (but I didn't).  However, two of the journalist contacts I made were to prove very useful.  I remember reading a rant by Andrew Marr, the BBC's favourite Tory interviewer; he hates bloggers because they think they are real journalists but just post spiteful rubbish.  What an irony.  If Marr was a real journalist he would know how much they've come to depend on bloggers.
There were other contacts too.  One was an academic psychologist, working in a university in Wales (that much was true, I checked him out).  He was inviting bloggers like me to go and be interviewed by him on why we picked on Emma Harrison when A4e was no different to any other company.  He admitted he had no worked up proposal for a study yet.  I answered him rather tersely.  It puzzled me that an academic would start out with his conclusion already formed and seek to prove it.  His reply was odd and I tried hard to explain why A4e was different.  He then became quite abusive and I told him that I would ignore any further communications from him.  It turned out that he had done some work for A4e.  He went onto the Indus Delta site (it was obviously him) to ask for the same information and to complain about me.  Gratifyingly, he was ignored.
Then there was the young man, a student I think, who wanted my opinion on a series of short films he and his friends were making - to be shown on the London underground! - loosely based on A4e.  I watched half of one film and was completely turned off by the obscenity-filled conversation.  He was a bit embarrassed when I told him so; they were improvised, he said.  I didn't watch any more, after pointing out a couple of factual errors.  But I wish him well.
I should add that I have made some interesting email contacts among my regular readers as well.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Watching A4e - the highlights (1)

Since this blog will, I assume, soon be done with I thought I would reprise some of the highlights of its 7 years.
It started back in the summer of 2008.  I'd retired from a job which had brought me into contact with A4e, and I had the idea of starting a website to share what I knew and find others who were also interested.  And, to be honest, I wanted the experience of setting up a website.  I chose, at random, a free hosting site, which turned out to be a mistake.  At first it was very interesting.  It attracted views and followers and soon I had contacts from journalists and researchers.  There was growing interest in outsourcing in general and A4e in particular.  I had contacts, too, from employees of the company, comments on blog posts which I allowed.  That was another mistake.  One evening I switched on and found that my site had been "suspended" for what they called "defamation".  I had no way to contact the hosting company, which was American, and no way to argue my case.  Of course, it was A4e which had intervened, and I could only assume that it was the employees' comments which had provoked them.  Anonymous people had described the conditions they were working under and the way that clients had been treated.
I found that I could retrieve the content of the site and my list of email addresses of followers.  I emailed out to all of them (including a TV researcher) saying what had happened.  This had two effects.  I got an immediate reply from a chap in Edinburgh telling me to put the blog on Google blogger.  They weren't easily intimidated, he said.  I did that, the same night (though without the comments which I suspected had caused the trouble).  And other bloggers with a bigger audience than I had took up the story.  Very soon everyone with an interest in the subject knew that A4e had tried to close me down.
I learned a valuable lesson or two from this.  I have not since published allegations which I can't verify.  At times this has led to other bloggers charging me with being somehow an A4e "plant".  I have worked out what really matters.  And I have learned the value of cultivating contacts.

Do any of my loyal followers have their own highlights of the A4e story?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Some thoughts on the sell-off

Whoever tweets on A4e's behalf was merrily going on about apprenticeships today, and that was the news on their website.  It's not surprising that there's nothing about the impending sale.  But I'm now wondering whether potential buyers might hold off until after the election.  The result could be a big influence on how much the parts of the business are worth.
Take welfare-to-work.  Labour has said that it would not renew the current Work Programme contracts, but would instead give the organisation to local bodies such as councils and LEPs.  This would still mean the involvement of private companies, but not on the same scale.  A Conservative government would just produce a new variation of the WP.  Would Labour carry on with workfare?  It was a Labour government which started it, after all.  They are pledged to stop it for young people, replacing it with guaranteed (although temporary) paid jobs, but have said nothing about older people.
As for prison education, that depends on getting a government which stops cutting the numbers of prison staff, leaving prisoners unable to attend classes.  And then there's the Money Advice service, another unknown prospect.
The Tories are saying that 30,000 staff are to go from the DWP.  Given how utterly shambolic that department is now, that is frightening.  But could this mean the outsourcing of Jobcentre Plus?  ("We've created [make up a number] private sector jobs .....")  They've been hankering after doing that for some time, and any company in the sector would be scrambling for contracts.  That would make A4e's assets attractive.
Labour intends to subject outsourcing companies to the same transparency rules as public sector bodies, but it wouldn't stop outsourcing.  However, a Tory government would be a much more attractive prospect for potential buyers of A4e.

Friday, 6 March 2015

More on the A4e sell-off

Not a great deal more, to be honest.  But this piece on Education Investor suggests that the company could be sold off "in chunks", which would make sense.  There will be companies like Interserve keen to buy up the welfare-to-work business, while outfits already in the OLASS field might want what's left of the prison education side of things.  Both this piece and the FT article have the suggestion that a group of northern colleges (Newcastle College?) is interested.
Why now?  The articles talk about A4e being "mired in scandal"; but there have been scandals for years, none of them anywhere near the scale of Serco's or G4S's.  Both point out that the company's finances are recovering from the pre-tax loss of £11.5m in the 2013 year.  But this sale has been on the cards for a while.  A4e hit a peak around 2011, with a presence in 11 countries and Emma Harrison riding high as its chairman as well as owner.  That went spectacularly wrong when she took nearly £10m out of the company in one year prior to stepping down as chairman and bowing out of her government role.  Since then she has not received a dividend and the company has got back into the black by getting out of all overseas business except in Australia and not going after contracts on which it knows it would lose money.  If Harrison is to make anything further from A4e she has to sell it off now.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


This is the biggest news about A4e ever.  Read the full story here in the Financial Times.

"Emma Harrison, the prime minister’s former “families champion”, has appointed Deloitte to advise on a sale or break-up of the business, which has been struggling since being hit by a series of fraud claims."

Nobody is saying anything else very much, except that Harrison, with an 87% share in the company, is "weighing her options" and that various outfits might be interested in buying.

That's all we know for now, and it's late, so a more considered post tomorrow.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions

Channel 4 had a programme about the sanctions regime last night which I wasn't able to watch.  I'd intended to catch up on it today, but decided not to bother.  When the producers seek an opinion from the odious Tory front group The Taxpayers' Alliance you know it's not an impartial programme, and posts on Twitter suggest it followed the government line.
The need for truth was highlighted in an extraordinary way in a Twitter exchange this morning.  Kevin Maguire, the Mirror journalist, tweeted: "Imagine being late for work one day and the boss docks your pay for a month.  That's how benefits sanctions work."  Someone replied that he had been 7 minutes late for an appointment and was sanctioned for 3 months.  In came the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer.  She asked, politely enough, whether he'd been late before and if he'd been given a warning before.  Someone else waded in to point out that there are no warnings in the system and that sanctions are automatic.  Back came the snappy response from Brewer: "not true".  She was asked how she knew that, told politely she was wrong and the point about no warnings was repeated.
Ms Hartley-Brewer obviously doesn't like to be contradicted.  She snarled back: "have you ever tried talking to people who work in the benefits office AND people who've been sanctioned.  It helps."  (She was obviously too cross to pay attention to punctuation.)  The respondent said that she had worked in the system and would like to explain it to her, politely.  But it was too late.  Others waded in, one with a string of obscenities which played into Brewer's hands; she retweeted it.  The polite respondent left the fray and it descended into childish name-calling.  That Brewer was wrong in her original statement was never addressed, and those who were angry and feel themselves provoked were made to look like the baddies.
And that's the trouble.  It's usually impossible to contact a journalist directly, and that's understandable.  But it reinforces the power relationship.  She has a platform.  Whether she is telling the truth about her conversations we can't know.  It seems unlikely, given that she doesn't know what she's talking about.  But like everyone on the right she can ignore all the evidence and repeat government lies.  If she has read the recent reports by various churches she has discounted them.  If she followed the evidence given in the Work & Pensions Select Committee enquiry, she has discounted it.  She prefers to believe IDS, McVey et al because to do otherwise would be to shake her faith in Conservative politics.
There are lots of links I could post, but I'll stick to just one, which is very relevant here, although it's mainly about Universal Credit.  Helen Lewis wrote this excellent piece in the New Statesman last week.
If you haven't yet read Owen Jones' latest book, The Establishment, you really should.  (A4e gets coverage in a section on outsourcing.)  We knew the gist of Jones' argument; but he provides a wealth of facts and figures and pulls the threads together to present a frightening picture.  His concluding chapter contains a hopeful picture of what needs to happen.  But it won't, and that is depressing.

Friday, 27 February 2015

In two minds

There's a press release on A4e's own website which bugs me.  They are taking on 20 apprentices at A4e, in Sheffield, basically to do admin, working towards "a Level 2 Apprenticeship in Customer Service or Business Administration".  It's in support of something called National Apprenticeship Week.  That's good, surely, for the 20 people who might get a properly-paid job out of it?
But is it good for them or anyone else?  After all, an "apprentice" gets £2.73 an hour (unless it's gone up recently).  And the very word is deceitful.  An apprentice used to be a youngster who spent up to 7 years learning a skilled trade, paid not very much, but at the end of it emerging as a skilled man (rarely a woman) who could get well paid work anywhere but usually stayed with the original company.  There are a few large companies who still take on apprentices on that basis.  But the last government started something called "modern apprenticeships" to fill the gap caused by employers who refused to train their workers themselves.  And this government has downgraded the concept even further.  Far too often now, an apprentice is just someone who can be paid next to nothing while doing a meaningless qualification.
I left school at 16, a long, long time ago, and walked straight into what was then called a clerical job.  The pay was poor, but so was everyone's in that office.  In less than a week I had grasped the job.  But I didn't like it, so got another job. After 9 months of that I left and became a civil servant.  Then after a year I went to college.  In each of my three, very different, jobs the employer expected to have to teach me what the job entailed then rely on my ability to do it.  I was not being exploited as cheap labour.  And that's what these apprenticeships feel like.
So I don't want to slag off A4e simply for trying to get some good publicity out of giving a start to 20 admin trainees.  But are they, like so many other employers, just using the system to avoid paying people properly?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Unpleasant story

There's an interesting story in Hull's local paper here which involves A4e.  I stress that no blame attaches to A4e.
It goes back to New Deal days, before 2008, when A4e had the contract in the city.  They would send people on fork lift truck courses (in those days you could get actual skills training).  One man who was sent on this was appalled to find that the boss of the firm was a man, Nicholas Holbrook, who had sexually abused him as a child, something he had never reported.  The man said he would not go on this training with Holbrook.  Says the paper: 'He claims he told the company of Holbrook’s abuse.  Mr Wilson said: “I said I’m not going. He abused me as a young kid.  They told me you can’t make accusations like that against a pillar of the community. You’ll get your benefits stopped.  I had a wife and three kids [so had to go].”'
Wilson came forward when he learned in 2013 that Holbrook had been jailed for 7 years for raping and sexually assaulting two men who had also been referred to Holbrook for training.  The report doesn't say how those two came to be referred, or by whom.  Wilson's evidence at a new trial put Holbrook away for a further 6 years.
As I said, no blame attaches to A4e.  It just seems a somewhat extreme example of what can happen when people are compelled, under threat of destitution, to put themselves in impossible situations.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


It's not been a comfortable week for the Conservatives.  HSBC, Stephen Green, tax avoidance, and that "black and white ball" when the obscenely rich gathered to give money to the Tories.  They had a raffle.  On Wednesday I paid a quid for some raffle tickets and won a bottle of cheap plonk.  But the Tories' raffle was nothing like that.  One of the prizes was an "iron man" with Iain Duncan Smith - a long cross-country run.  But as always the Tory deception machine kicked in.  MPs were instructed to deflect every question to an accusation against Ed Miliband and Labour.  The media happily co-operated, the BBC especially so, but it got pretty desperate.  Today came the announcement that a new Tory government will target people who are unable to work because of obesity.  They will have to go on a diet or lose their benefits.  (Hasn't IDS told them that he's got a much simpler way - just sanction them and starve them thin?)  Mark Harper was wheeled out onto the Today programme this morning to explain the idea, and with commendable (and unusual) persistence Mishal Hussein made him talk about tax avoidance as well.  The deception machine went into top gear and Harper trotted out the untruths too fast to be contradicted.
But this was by no means the daftest idea of the week.  The Tories have been muttering for some time about extending right-to-buy to housing association tenants.  Now IDS has come up with the notion of giving their council houses to tenants who've been on benefits but come off for a year.  Now, I could list all the reasons why this is insane.  But the New Statesman has already done it.  And the Mirror points out that an investigation in 2013 found that a third of all the council homes sold off in the Thatcher years are now owned by private landlords.  It's no surprise that this story didn't get much attention from the mainstream press.  It's so barmy it won't happen, even under majority Tory government.
But this scapegoating of people on benefits isn't going away.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Esther McVey's evidence session

I sat through two hours of this.  She was giving the last evidence, along with a DWP civil servant, Hayes, to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into sanctions.  After two hours the BBC Parliament channel left the session and I couldn't bring myself to go to it on the computer.  I'd felt myself losing the will to live inside ten minutes.
A bit of the flavour of it is reported by the Guardian here.  But they are trying to be too even-handed.  It was dire.  McVey waffled and fudged, didn't answer the question, cited surveys she then couldn't detail, and turned to Hayes whenever it got complicated.  The Chair, Dame Anne Begg, was tougher than usual, but it was only when the other Labour members of the committee, Debbie Abrahams, Sheila Gilmore, Glenda Jackson and Teresa Pearce, were set loose that McVey showed the gulf between what she (and her boss and the DWP) would like to think is happening and what is actually happening.
One lie has clearly been nailed.  The committee has heard about the way in which Work Programme providers are obliged to refer someone for sanction whenever there is a perceived infringement of the rules.  This is going to be changed, by the way; they are to have discretion, which is what they want.  But it needs primary legislation and a renegotiation of the contracts, so won't happen yet.  But McVey was not reminded of the fact that she has lied about this in Parliament, insisting that sanctions are only used as a last resort.  Another lie was repeated.  McVey was adamant that there are no targets.  This became a bit of a muddle, with Jackson and McVey both referring to the same letter from the PCS union; and in fairness McVey was right.  But, at least while I was watching, we never got to the truth about targets in Jobcentres.

The Guardian and the Independent have been publishing the truth, with articles here, here and here, and the New Statesman has joined in.  All these pieces give the picture which McVey determinedly denied today.  Let's hope that the committee's report doesn't get too watered down by the Tories on it.  They've heard the truth and should report it.  But, as I've said before, it won't make a scrap of difference if the Tories get in in May.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Esther McVey - and related matters

On Wednesday morning, 4 February, if you are not otherwise occupied, I suggest you watch Esther McVey give evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee on the whole issue of sanctions.  If it isn't on the BBC parliament channel it will be on the government's own parliament website.  The committee has been taking evidence on the effect and workings of the sanctions regime, and they've been hearing the truth from the right people.  So let's see if McVey will repeat her lie in the House of Commons that "sanctions are only used as a last resort".  Even if the rather restrained Chair, Dame Anne Begg, doesn't go for her I'm sure Glenda Jackson, Sheila Gilmore and Debbie Abrahams will.  Radio 4 did an excellent File on Four programme while the previous evidence sessions were going on, and the mainstream press have begun to see the light.  The sad truth is, though, that nothing will come of this if a Conservative government is elected.

And that brings me to another reason why February is important.  On 5 February it's National Voter Registration Day, a day of action to get people who haven't already done so to register to vote in May.  Please, if you're one of those who haven't bothered, get online and sign up to register.  Go to the website and it will take you through it.
Oh, I know I'll get comments saying someone wouldn't dream of voting, for all the usual reasons.  But whether you vote or not, you'll wake up on 8 May with an MP in your constituency and a government in Westminster.  If you want change - and don't we all - look at Greece.  Peacefully and democratically the Greek people have voted in an anti-austerity government.  And now Spain looks like going the same way.  It can be done.  Sermon over.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

More on that A4e fraud case

I've been waiting to see whether Private Eye would cover the A4e fraud case.  It has.  But it's a short piece which adds little or nothing to our understanding of the case.  It does say: "The fraud was blatant; the prosecution described, for example, 'a completely false file showing the individual's contact and training sessions with A4e'.  After a new employee blew the whistle, audits uncovered the scale of the fraud, which had also involved people being offered 'shopping vouchers' to pretend they had got jobs through A4e."

We can expand on that.  One employee (we'll call her AB) was training another, transferred from another office, on the particular Inspire contract.  This employee told AB that fraud was widespread among her former colleagues.  AB reported this to management and this put in train the internal audit by A4e.  Which one of these two employees should be described as the whistle-blower is not really important.  The investigation subsequently uncovered the scale of the fraud.  The irony is that AB ended up as one of the convicted - for falsifying her own file.  She had been taken on by A4e after applying for a job with them through Inspire, and a file was then created to show, falsely, that she had been on a programme with A4e so that a job outcome payment could be claimed.  AB (not knowing any better, she later claimed) signed the paperwork which had been compiled by another of the convicted.  Having read some of the evidence presented in this case, I have to say that it would confuse anyone who isn't au fait with the way these paper-based contracts worked.

That there was a climate of fraudulent activity in this contract is clear.  That the incentive to do this was the financial rewards offered by the company is also clear.  And one does wonder why A4e didn't acknowledge that the investigation was triggered by a whistle blower.  If the A4e media relations person who gave me her phone number the other day and invited me to contact her (not something I would ever do) would like to comment openly here she will be welcome.  A4e has dropped the system of individual bonuses, but confirms that they offer team bonuses.  Quite how that would prevent this type of fraud isn't clear.

PS: There is a great deal to say about benefit sanctions at the moment, but I'll deal with that in a separate post.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Guilty of fraud

We've waited a long time for the outcome of this trial, but it finished today with a guilty verdict on ten A4e employees in Slough (three more were acquitted).  There's a brief write-up on the BBC news website and a better one on the Slough Express site.  
They were working on a lone parent mentoring programme called Aspire to Inspire (I kid you not) which paid A4e for job outcomes in much the same way as the Work Programme.  The convictions are for fraud and forgery, with two of them also guilty of conspiracy.  The local paper says that "The fake claims were discovered though a whistleblower report, which led to an investigation by the department of Work and Pensions and Thames Valley Police," whereas Andrew Dutton, A4e's boss, has always claimed that A4e found the fraud themselves.  Whichever, as we suspected, the motive was to claim the bonuses the company offered for successful job outcomes.  "Financial rewards had been introduced," said the police spokesman, and pointed out that, "The money they fraudulently claimed came from the taxpayer and just over £1.3m was paid to A4e between 2008 and 2010 for their implementation of this contract."
A4e announced some time back that they no longer offer individual bonuses.  A couple of years ago they seriously annoyed many manager-level staff by withdrawing all bonuses, which meant something like a 20% pay cut.  It also has to be remembered that this was a paper-based claims system, which was wide open to fraud without rigorous auditing.  All you had to do was fill in the claims form with a fictitious job and put a false signature on it.  Clearly, this A4e office didn't do it occasionally; they thought they could get away with it on a grand scale.
Sentencing has been deferred until 30 March.
This isn't on the scale of the fraud by G4S and Serco.  But it's bad enough.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Reflections on those accounts

It's very telling that no one in the media has shown the slightest interest in A4e's latest accounts.  How different from the furore nearly three years ago which brought down Emma Harrison and very nearly destroyed the company.
How have they done it?  They've scraped their way back to profit, just, from a dire situation, and they've done it by not trying to compete with the big boys.  The chairman talked about "discipline".  They've put in realistic bids for contracts but withdrawn when they could see that they were going to be undercut by companies which could afford to lose money initially and then get the contract changed to allow them a profit.  It's not a game A4e wants to play any more.  And they've pulled out of foreign parts (except for Australia), presumably because it was costing too much to keep up that international presence.  From a company with limitless ambition they've become a medium-sized outfit looking to make a living.
I suppose we should be pleased.  But there's no comfort in the fact that a few huge companies now run the bulk of our public services and behave as if there are no risks or consequences of failure.

Meanwhile, there was an interesting story on the Disability News Service website last month.  A former A4e employee, Chris Loder, took the company to a tribunal claiming constructive dismissal.  He alleged that he had been forced to work with vulnerable ESA clients, some with mental health problems, when he had no experience in this area and was given no training.  A former colleague, supporting him, described the policy as "incredibly dangerous".  The article prints a long statement from A4e refuting the claims.  The tribunal's verdict is due this month.

And speaking of verdicts, there still isn't one in the Slough fraud case, being heard in Reading.  Before the holidays it was reported on the courts' website that the jury was out, but today there's no further news.

Do you remember A4e's Hayley Taylor and her 5 minutes of fame as the "Fairy Jobmother"?  It seemed the company might have another star in the offing.  ITV have a programme starting this Thursday called Bring Back Borstal, and A4e were publicising the fact that one of their managers, a woman connected with their prison education contracts, was going to be on it.  That link has now disappeared, so I've no idea what's happening.