Saturday, 18 October 2014

Bad news and no news

There's a bit of news today which provides no comfort for A4e.  Big reforms to pensions come in next year, and the government has recognised that people will need advice and guidance.  It was expected that the Money Advice Service (MAS) would be the outfit to deliver that; but no.  The Pensions Advisory Service will deliver the non-face to face guidance, while Citizens Advice will handle the face to face service.  What has that got to do with A4e?  Well, it's A4e which has the contract from MAS to do the face to face money advice, a fact which is still nowhere mentioned on the MAS website.  So what might have been a new source of work for A4e won't be.

The "no news" refers to the silence over the Slough fraud case.  If you need a reminder, there's this from the Daily Mail.  Five A4e employees were convicted of fraud early this year, having pleaded guilty to using forged paperwork to make false claims.  Sentencing was delayed, presumably until the trial of the remaining 8 accused, who were, we were told, due to go on trial in October.  I assumed that these ex-employees had pleaded not guilty, hence the delay.  Okay, there are two weeks of October still to go, but will we hear any more of this case?  I know it's small beer compared to the massive frauds by G4S and Serco, apparently forgiven by the government.  But we need to hear the full story.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The future of work

If you didn't see the Panorama programme last night, you really should.  It's on iplayer.  It's called Workers on the Breadline and is a real eye-opener for those who think poor people are all idle and feckless.  It looked at working people whose incomes have to be topped up by tax credits.  (The presenter used the word hand-outs a lot, and I objected to that, but perhaps he was just reflecting the language of the right-wing press.)  There were couples where both partners worked (and had no more than three children) but even with WTC were living on the edge; and there was a single man, Jason, working in a zero hours job, earning around £10k a year and getting only £300 a year in WTC.  These were real people, struggling (and in Jason's case drowning) and knowing that it will only get worse.  It was pointed out that working overtime or extra hours isn't the answer because you lose most of your benefit, and for people with children the cost of childcare is impossible.  I haven't seen the BBC do anything this competent and important for years, so it's sad to learn that they're ditching all investigative reporting from Panorama.  There were no politicians waffling; the positions of the two main parties were set out succinctly.  And two authorities offered no solutions, admitting that Britain has become a low-skilled economy and wages are far too low.  While education and skills would seem to be important, one said, if you come out of university and the only work you can get is stacking shelves, that in itself isn't the answer.
There was a disturbing report from Liverpool on Saturday that half the jobs on Merseyside are now temporary agency jobs.  (See this Liverpool Echo piece.)  Agencies like Prime Time get hand-outs from the government to take people on under the Work Programme then pay them so little that, after travel costs, they can come away with £3.72 an hour.
This is a lunatic downward spiral.  Of the families featured on the Panorama programme, one husband and wife both work at Tesco.  But they can't afford to shop there.  All the big supermarkets are losing market share to the discounters.  And that's just one obvious result of how making people suffer frozen wages and benefit cuts impacts on the economy as a whole.  Those at the very top rake in a bigger and bigger share of the nation's money, but they don't spend it down at the supermarket.

What is the answer, then?  Raising the minimum wage is an obvious part of it, despite the protests of business that they can't afford it.  Genuine skills training has to be in there too.  Jason said in the programme that the only way he could see of getting a better job was to have a driving license, but he obviously couldn't afford driving lessons.  Why not set up a free driving school for people in his position?  And anyone who has spent years working in a particular industry and then loses his job should be re-trained.  Another component is to get rid of all the free labour, workfare schemes which allow companies to avoid actually hiring people.
The answer is not the Work Programme.  Both Labour and the Lib Dems have come round to the idea that local councils have to be in control of this.  They couldn't just end the contracts but they could negotiate changes which would give councils the power to commission programmes suited to the needs of their areas, and to use the money currently being wasted on the WP to fund the the schemes many councils are already operating in conjunction with skills training organisations.

The status quo is not an option for much longer.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Quick question

I'm not clued up on Working Tax Credits, but I'm sure some of you are, so answers, please:
If someone who is on WTC gets more in their pay packet, through a rise in the minimum wage, or a rise in the tax threshold, do they get a corresponding decrease in WTC, so that their income remains the same?  Yes, no, more complicated?

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.)