Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The welfare-to-work gravy train

So welfare-to-work shysters A4E are in trouble for fraud again. While I'm pleased to see the DWP and the police investigating these latest allegations, I can't help asking if anyone is really suprised by this. A4E are a massive private training provider with millions of pounds worth of government contracts.They are issued with targets for getting people back into work and paid according to their success in an industry where fraudulent practices are, if not encouraged, made fairly easy. I've written about this before, back in 2010, but since these cowboys have hit the headlines again, I have felt my hackles rising and the need to get it off my chest once more.

It isn't just A4E - fraud and malpractice is endemic in the welfare-to-work industry. I worked for a similar outfit back in the mid-noughties, teaching ESOL on a 'Basic Employability Training' scheme. The company I worked for was one of many such companies that had, and still have, contracts with the Job Centre. They get money from the DWP for various things, such as exam-passes and getting students onto work placements and into work. While I had some great colleagues there and many, many fantastic students, it was a pretty miserable experience.

One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked about these welfare-to-work companies is what a bunch of massive tightwads they are. While they may be raking it in from the taxpayer for their supposed successes and paying those at the top up to 8 million in dividends, the conditions for those at the bottom - the teachers and administrators who keep the places going, not to mention the students - are not good.

In 2004 the DFES, as it then was, ran a series of free training courses for people working in the Skills for Life sector. In the spirit of such aforementioned tightness, my employers leapt at the chance of sending me on a few of these, which no doubt enabled them to tick a box about 'staff development' without having to actually fork out for any proper teacher training. On these training days I met lots of people who worked for similar companies to mine, including A4E. Our conversations would often become a bit like group therapy. We complained about the crappy conditions and the crooked way things were done and about the fact that all aspects of the work - getting people jobs, teaching, learning - were reduced to targets and profit.

In these companies, fraudulent behaviour was fairly commonplace. Signatures got forged, paperwork got faked and evidence fabricated so that money could be claimed. At a friend's workplace, a woman was taken out of her ESOL class one day by a member of staff and asked to pose by a photocopier holding a piece of paper while she had her photo taken - she later found out that this was being used for her coursework portfolio as evidence of a work placement that she had never done. What is troubling about this story is, in a way, not so much the fakery itself, it's the fact that the exam board made the fakery so easy, by requiring such paltry evidence.

The whole thing is basically one big racket and the people who suffer are, of course, the people who these companies are supposed to be helping. As John Harris points out in his piece in the Guardian today, the unpaid work placement is a cornerstone of welfare-to-work. My students were often put on such placements, whether they liked it or not; it was, in essence, the workfare that is currently getting so much negative attention. Many students I taught back then had been forcibly removed by the Job Centre from far better ESOL courses at local FE colleges so that they could attend our courses and threatened with loss of benefits if they refused to comply. Having worked in several FE colleges since, I have seen students disappear from courses of my own for the same reason. As immigrants, the students i worked with were particularly vulnerable - many had very limited English or had uncertain residency status - which made them less likely to put up resistance.

Whose stupid idea was it to put these unaccountable private businesses in charge of all this stuff? Ah yes, it was the last Labour government. Like in so many other areas, including NHS reform, the Labour government put in place the conditions that makes the Tories' current work that little bit easier. Back when he was work and pensions secretary David Blunkett pushed for greater private sector involvement in welfare reform and, as far as I know, still gets paid for his advisory role with A4E.

With these forced schemes and the threat of benefit withdrawal, the DWP and companies like A4E strip JSA claimants of their agency and reduce them to mere numbers on a spreadsheet. The idea that people might have some choice themselves in what job or course they would like to do figures nowhere in these schemes. It is a disgrace that these companies still have contracts with the government for this work and even more that they were ever given them in the first place.


  1. I agree,.. This is my Third time at a4e, new deal, flexible new deal then work programme. I have done them all. They promised work placement.. they found one on my 10th week, but i couldnt get there, it was a problem to get too if you cant drive.

    The second time, they said i could study for a pttls course, as i was helping the other clients they said make it official.. no funding for it.. I did the job of a trainer who couldnt be bothered to do the work. They found me a placement the last day, this was during the HOT summer, 30 men in a room with no ventilation in the heat. a tutor comes up and says 1 hour before the interview that he has been told that i stink.. and gives me deoderant can. now this time, my adviser asked what my faith was.. then she asked about my diet. I could say hundreds of more stories. a4e is useless some staff are good, but most are scared.

  2. agree it is a waste of time - just make people sign on 3 times a day at random times, and create new jobs at jobcentres to aid the process. No coercion, just prove available for work by being onsite at a jobcentre 3 times a day.