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.