Workfare, welfare, and freedom of information

So long as the government’s workfare programmes were kept slightly blurred, it was easy for people otherwise of good will to support them. (Ideological cheap-work conservatives would support workfare all the more for understanding what it is, but genuine believers in that faith are always rare, even if not quite confined to the 1%.)

Long-term young unemployed, school-leavers or recent graduates, never had a job or at least out of practice with getting up and out of the house every day to get to a job and sticking to their work, getting experience at work which is done for the public benefit. Put that way and it sounds positively like an excellent idea, doesn’t it? Even the news that disabled people and the chronically-ill would be required to work for their benefits might not have affected the public view of workfare much, since there has been a strong public perception created that people in receipt of disability benefit are all scroungers.

Christina Patterson wrote in The Independent on 3rd March 2012:

You’d have thought that the people who can see, and hear, and move their legs and arms, and do an awful lot of things without having to think about how they’re going to do them, would think that they were lucky. You’d have thought that they’d look at the people who did have to think about those things, and wonder what they could do to make their life easier. You wouldn’t have thought that those people would be shouting nasty things at those people, and saying that they’re “scroungers”.

But apparently the impulse to shout “scrounger” is pretty strong, as Patterson was writing only a fortnight earlier that: in The Independent on 22nd February 2012:

The people who think that these people are slaves would like the world to be different. We would all like the world to be different. We would all like lovely jobs for everyone who wants them, and good salaries for all work. That, unfortunately, isn’t the world we’re in. In a country that’s in debt, in a world with an endless supply of cheap labour, and in the middle of a massive financial crisis, subsidised stints in supermarkets may be the best chance for long-term employment that some of us get.

(In “some of us”, she doesn’t mean to include herself, of course: she means the kind of people who ought to be grateful to work for less than minimum wage. Philip Davies suggested something similar in June 2011, which has now become government policy.)

But the more information about workfare came into the public awareness, the less people liked it.

Certainly the news that “to the public benefit” could mean “to the profit of big companies with a turnover of millions” does not sit well with most people, who can see perfectly well that if Pizza Hut or McDonalds are in need of new workers, and are allowed to avoid paying them wages by getting their workers from A4e or Avanta, this will diminish employment opportunities, not increase them: and even if this could be tolerated on the hopeful grounds that letting young people try out what it was like to go to work there before their employer had to pay them, punishing an unemployed person with destitution for quitting a job for which they were not being paid, sounds unacceptably like slave labour. Some people might even object to the idea that someone sick and in constant pain has to attend mandatory work experience classes in order to receive their disability payments.

As the word got out which companies and charities were taking advantage of these workfare schemes, Bernardos and Tescos alike found themselves faced with an unacceptable public relations problem. While Tory Ministers blamed all objections on “socialists” who objected to the state funding free labour for big business, and hold adamantly to the schemes staying Dickensian-workhouse style, because Tory ideology needs to remove the principle of the universal welfare state, the ideal of common humanity – still, the charities and companies who were supposed to provide the workplaces are now saying that for the sake of their own reputation, this has to be changed.

Employers had decided the punitive aspects of the work experience scheme were a reputational hazard. Few were averse to the principle or spirit of work experience; but none, especially the charities, could in the end live with the idea that a young person is compelled to carry through with an unpaid “voluntary” placement of up to eight weeks or face a sanction – the removal of two weeks’ unemployment benefit.

That scale of loss, the children’s charity Barnardo’s said, would tip youngsters on the edge of poverty into destitution.

Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, which trains 3,000 young people a year, said it was “entirely reasonable” that youngsters who were trying to find their way may struggle and decide to leave after a couple of weeks. “I believed it was punitive that at this stage they could lose their benefits for a scheme that they had entered into voluntarily,” she said.

According to one attendee at the meeting between ministers and employers, the two-hour discussion was “amicable and constructive”. But it was made clear that dropping sanctions was the price of employers’ continued support for the entire scheme. (Guardian, 29th February 2012)

For some years A4e was being used by the JobCentres to find workfare placements for long-term unemployed. There seems to have been a little more flexibility under the Labour government’s scheme than under the Tories – from my own personal experience, prior to the new Tory workfare schemes, A4e volunteers were allowed to organise their own assignments – find a volunteer placement of their choice with a preferred charity.

With the Tory principle of payment-by-results, requiring a large amount of money upfront which a big company can find easily and a small local charity cannot, small local charities will always lose out to big business.

In a pilot payment-by-results contract, returns to investors will be based on reductions in re-offending rates among prisoners leaving Peterborough Prison, achieved thorough the work of the St Giles Trust and others. To carry out the work, the charity raised money from charitable foundations and social investors. But if payment-by-results contracts prove profitable, companies with large capital bases will see them as attractive. And charities will find it hard to compete.

Small, local charities could see their main source of funding vanish. Larger, national charities will face the choice of trying to bid against commercial organisations or working with them. The competition to be faced can be seen in the decision to award a community healthcare services contract in Surrey to the company Assura rather than to Central Surrey Health, a local social enterprise. (Third Sector News, 21st December 2011)

Payment-by-results, when results are defined as getting people back to work, is always going to mean – for companies motivated purely by profit – that the people who are easy to find jobs for will be those targeted for “placement”: the genuinely hard cases will be avoided as unprofitable, or passed on to the small local charities for whom A4e will become their only source of funding – though A4e will take its 25% fee for “management”.

“Even if it is £350, and [Lifeline] tells me it is £300, I can’t understand what you give them for the £50,” said [Margaret Hodge MP].

[Andrew Dutton, chief executive of A4e] said: “We take a management fee. In return, we work with employers to effectively get vacancies that are dedicated to the providers.”

In response, Hodge said: “LifeLine has worked with big firms like Tesco for years. It has a far better relationship with local employers. You haven’t a clue about the local economy.”

Hodge said the low level of the up-front payments meant the charity could afford just one adviser for every 120 clients. “Even if you use every minute for direct contact with clients, you’d have only 20 minutes for each client,” she said. “How can you provide a quality service?”

While news of fraud at A4e could make the government look bad, it doesn’t look good for either the current Tory coalition or the previous Labour government. I think it looks worse for the Tories: by the time Labour were done it was obvious A4e were not meeting targets but were being paid bonuses for productivity, which invites the question why the Tories decided to expand A4e’s role and let them take contracts away from small local jobfinding charities which were more successful and more useful.

A4e declares in its published accounts:

“We have continued to contribute to government policy development” while seeking to “establish a reputation as a thought leader in political circles around public service reform”. A4e is also apparently busy “defining and developing future markets creating new pipelines of opportunity”

These are pipelines which, as Private Eye notes, “carry large quantities of public money”:

A4e has partly created its “thought leadership” by hiring key insiders: former Labour minister David Blunkett, for example, and Sir Robin Young, a one-time top mandarin at the Department of Trade. It has also hired former Tory Policy Unit wonk Jonty Olliff Cooper to run the “policy team” which is guaranteeing its “pipeline” of cash. Making the right political noises paid off for Harrison, who was appointed as David Cameron’s “families’ champion” too – a role she also relinquished shortly before stepping down from A4e.

Using the techniques of publicity about offenders via Twitter and blogs, and public protests by flying groups, UK Uncut brought the issue of taxdodging companies and individuals to the public attention. Boycott Workfare is using similar techniques. Izzy Koksal writes:

We stood outside Pizza Hut and unfurled our huge banner declaring ‘If you exploit us – we will shut you down’. From here it was put to the group whether we deemed the Work Experience scheme to be workfare still, in the light to the government’s ‘concessions’. Considering the direct and indirect sanctions that are still in place in the Work Experience scheme there was immediate agreement that companies involved in Work Experience were still fair game. We passed out maps of the area which had helpfully marked all these companies and encouraged people to decide where we wanted to go next. The flags were raised and we were off. The police joining in too trying to get to the stores before us but not knowing which one it would be. Everywhere we looked seemed to be a company involved in workfare.

While David Cameron may blandly equate working for free for Marks & Spencers or Pizza Hut with going to Oxford, most people have a different experience of university than he does:

“We see this in the debate on education, put a young person into college for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s hailed as a good thing. Put a young person into a supermarket for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s slammed as slave labour.”

Freedom of Information requests to the Department of Work and Pensions had provided lists of companies and charities that had become involved in workfare – and had also provided confirmation that while government ministers were claiming no one was forced to work for private companies under threat of losing their benefits, in fact all workfare placements had to be sanctioned – had to be clearly part of the welfare system – as otherwise the companies involved in placing people to work for the JSA would be illegally making people work for less than minimum wage.

But recently, FOI requests to DWP have been met with the following reply:

The information you request is being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf. I consider that the exemption applies because it is intended to protect the ability of the Department to obtain goods or services on the best possible commercial terms and to protect the legitimate commercial interests of our suppliers. I maintain that the information you seek falls into this category.

While information held by public authorities falls under the FOI Act, there are some exemptions for information that may affect a business’ commercial interests. A commercial interest is anything which affects your business’ ability to work competitively.

When deciding whether releasing information would or could harm someone’s commercial interests, the public authority should apply the test of prejudice. To decide whether or not a particular disclosure would or could cause prejudice and harm someone’s commercial interests, a public authority will often need to exercise its judgement. It can seek the views of the business concerned, although it still makes the final decision.

Is DWP confusing itself with A4e and Avanta? The Department of Work and Pensions is not a company. It has, or ought not to have, any “commercial interests” to protect. The businesses which are being supplied with free labour by DWP’s agents do have commercial interests to protect, which they have told DWP must be protected by a change in government policy – by either paying their workers at least minimum wage, or by allowing the people assigned to workfare to quit without being sanctioned.

We know that the Tory government does not wish to change its welfare policy. Iain Duncan Smith has, s blogger Run4DemHills notes, “worked on his Work and Benefit Reforms almost since he lost the leadership of the Conservative Party” – and while IDS clearly has no intention of paying himself any less money, he learned at least how to make his intentions sound good.

So instead, information about workfare is being disappeared from the public view. Several bloggers have noticed this, and Channel 4’s FactCheck confirmed it:

Confusion reigns, and despite repeated phone calls and several days to think about it, DWP has declined to clarify the situation.

The spokesman did tell us that the apparently damning FoI answer had been taken down because it contained an error (“one of the names of the companies was wrong”).

And the timing of all this was pure coincidence, the spokesman insisted.

So a document emphasising the “mandatory” nature of Work Programme work experience happened to disappear from the department’s website just as the controversy over whether other schemes were mandatory was raging in the headlines.

Whitehall insiders have never liked the Freedom of Information Acts. (The 2002 FOI Act for Scotland, which applies to all devolved government, is more strongly worded than the earlier 2000 FOI Act for reserved powers – such as the benefits system! – and for public bodies in England and Wales. Wikicite)

I don’t think it’s just coincidence that right when the government are discovering how when the public have the right to know and have the ability to pass on what they know to millions via social media, we’re seeing extensive criticism of the principles of freedom of information, threats to restrict it, and suggestions about pricing FOI requests out of reach for ordinary people. Christopher Graham, Information Commissioner. writes:

“On FOI, a chorus of distinguished Whitehall insiders would have us believe, against all the evidence, that the act threatens good government because nobody dares to write anything down any more. But it’s nonsense to say that FOIA threatens to make public what really ought to remain secret for 30 years (shortly to be 20 years).”

Government critics of the freedom of information laws have also highlighted the information commissioner’s decision that the “risk register” over the impact of the controversial NHS reforms should be released as an example of policy-making being affected by the act. But Graham, who will be giving evidence at the tribunal adjudicating over a government appeal on the release of the risk register in March, says in the most extreme cases ministers have the last say because the cabinet has the power of veto.

The justice select committee, chaired by Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith, is examining the value of the Freedom of Information Act, which was introduced 12 years ago, and will start listening to evidence on Tuesday. Guardian, 19th February 2012

Save FOI. We need to know.

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Filed under Benefits, Disability, George Orwell, Poverty, Supermarkets

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