Saturday, February 25, 2012

Workfare - neither work nor fair?

Workfare has been to the fore lately, with the big participants in the 'work experience' schemes dropping out like flies. Sadly, the government has continued its own work experience scheme by finding employment for functional idiots (pictured).

 Being serious, these schemes help to distort the employment market - why should a large and highly profitable employer be able to benefit from an unending pool of essentially free labour? Tories should surely be concerned about what is government aid to a private business, but we know that their loathing of the private sector doesn't extend to companies that seek to bury their noses in the taxpayer trough.

There may be a slightly different case where there is proper training being provided, where the employer has invested something of their own time and money into the work experience trainee, but the other key problem is that it undermines the concept of the minimum wage and creates a minimum wage level that equates to JSA, something around £1.80 an hour for the 30 hour week offered. Tesco have now extended their offer by promising to pay participants the minimum wage and a suitable middle ground might be for the government to pay the employer the JSA rates to subsidise this employment - although that does raise the spectre of direct government support.

This sort of scheme does soothe the fevered brow of the Daily Mail, worried that there are scores of scroungers lazing around watching Jeremy Kyle and playing on their XBoxes rather than being out there, contributing to society. Morally, there is also the issue of using what is essentially conscripted labour - there is anecdotal evidence that people are being pressured onto these schemes and for some groups, the work is mandatory. However, the real question should be - does it actually make a difference? It might be possible to justify a brief period of work experience if it led to a proper job, but the evidence is inconclusive at best.

Cait Reilly - the young graduate memorably described by Cristina Odone as a 'creature' on BBC Question Time this week - reported on her experience in Poundland thatShe was actually dragged off a 'work placement' she had organised herself with a museum - something relevant to the career she hoped to pursue (and that's something that would score highly with me on initiative as a recruiter). Why the JobCentre couldn't have been a little imaginative with their thinking says much about the tramlines on which that service is run - I've long held the view that it is not being managed to deliver the best outcomes.
"No one really knew what we were supposed to be doing. We were just put on the shop floor and told to tidy shelves"
James Rayburn worked in Tesco

"I didn't actually have much support …They were getting on with their own jobs … they left me to it... They said, 'Good work today, Joe'. That was it, everyday
In terms of proper, academic analysis, there is limited data and, as Factcheck points out, (HT to @bengoldacre) the evidence so far - on a small base, to be fair - is inconclusive at best. The graph indicates the number of JSA claimants and work experience participants who remain on JSA as the weeks progress. It is very important to remember that coming off JSA does not mean that the claimant has found a job - about two thirds of those who leave JSA do so for work, but some of them enter education and others even end up submitting a new JSA claim, so restarting the process. 

Indeed, given that you would expect that candidates for this scheme to be those who are likely to have something about them and are likely to be able to turn up for work and not wind up their work experience employer, these may well be people more likely to gain employment than those not put forward for the scheme. These are not likely to be the hard cases, despite the rhetoric from the DWP.

Inclusion comment on their graph
This appears to show that the youth work experience scheme has had no additional impact on the speed at which young people leave benefit, and may have actually led to them spending longer on benefit than they would have done.  However, these figures require some caution  – the stated intent of the Department has been to target work experience at those with the biggest barriers to work, who would likely have had off-flow rates below the average for all claimants
currently work experience placements are too often short, of poor quality, with young people given little to do and the placement poorly linked to their wider education or the advice and guidance they receive
As someone with considerable experience of recruiting people, I'm not convinced that a short work placement would do any more than tip the balance slightly in favour of that candidate compared to somebody with no work experience, but it would not compensate for the experience gained by a candidate who had actually held a job for some time - hence why unemployment is significantly higher amongst the 16-24 group. Employers aren't daft. It would be of interest to me to have somebody on what amounts to a probationary period, so from that point of view, there is an attraction in being involved in the scheme, but I'm doubtful that it significantly increases the status of candidates in the eyes of others. The schemes also need to have actual value - stacking shelves in Poundland is of limited use outside the retail or warehousing sectors. Jonathan Portes refers to the ACEVO Commission on Youth Unemployment
If that is the case, then these placements are essentially without value to future employers and may even demoralise those taking part, rather than building their confidence to go and get a job. 
 The DWP already has evidence of the effectiveness of workfare - they commissioned a report  which analysed schemes in the US, Australia and Canada and came to the following conclusions (HT to @Right_to_work )
  • There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.
  • Subsidised (‘transitional’) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than ‘work for benefit’ programmes.
  • Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.
  • Levels of non-participation in mandatory activities are high in some workfare programmes
  • Workfare is least effective for individuals with multiple barriers to work.
  • Welfare recipients with multiple barriers often find it difficult to meet obligations to take part in unpaid work. This can lead to sanctions and, in the most extreme cases, the complete withdrawal of benefits that leaves some individuals with no work and no income. 
  • Some states in the US have scaled down large-scale, universal workfare programmes in preference for ‘softer’ and more flexible models that offer greater support to those with the most barriers to work. This includes a greater reliance on subsidised jobs that pay wages rather than benefits to participants
I should point out that I am no "job snob." I started my working life in retail, working part time in a computer retailer and worked up to be branch manager, so there are real opportunities there for those who want them - we have always been a nation of shopkeepers. I'm also firmly of the belief that there is a moral duty for people to work and to contribute to society - it is good for them and their families. I've never been out of work for more than a few weeks since I left university and I've not been too proud to take jobs on lower pay rather than hang on for the right job that pays brilliant money. This is a very personal problem for me - my contract finishes at the end of March and I will then have to rely on our savings and the very limited state support available to keep our heads bobbing above water. I will be honest with you and say that the prospect terrifies me - it keeps me awake at night.

The real problem isn't that we have a nation of scroungers - we don't, although of course, there will be some who are unwilling to work, but they are a very small number. The real problem is that there just aren't enough jobs. In Leicester, for example, Tesco saw 17 people applying for each position at one of their Express sites, while the opening of a larger Metro store last year brought 26 applicants for every job. People travelled from Sheffield and Birmingham to a jobs fair in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Travelodge had 66 applicants for every place on one of their junior management apprentice schemes. Hull has 80 JSA claimants for every JobCentre vacancy, Stoke has 73, Sunderland, Southend and The Wirral all count over 40 people for every available job. Over in Wales, it is normal to see 10 applicants for every job. Trust me on this - as someone looking for a job right now - it is a very tough market out there.

As the DWP know - workfare won't make any substantial difference to you if there isn't a job you can apply for. All of this really goes to the core of the issue - jobs will only come from economic growth and if the government is not delivering on that agenda, then they are failing our young people and the whole country on a grand scale. Trying to marginalise opposition to the current incarnation of workfare by blaming it on the Trots and throwing around wild accusations of email hacking ignores the reality that there are genuine concerns about the efficacy of these schemes as well as their moral and economic impacts and that these worries are shared by a broad range of groups, not just the bandwagon-friendly, simplistic, rabble rousers of the SWP (of whom I am assuredly not one, although I am a socialist, currently a worker and not averse to a good party). Grayling on the Today programme yesterday was sounding desperate, as well he might. Yet another government scheme is falling to pieces around their ears and no amount of sticking plaster, right-wing, feel-superior policies conceal that the government has no plan and no direction on the single biggest issue of the day.

It's the economy, stupid.

This is also the worst place to put a 'Situations Wanted' ad, but if you think you can use a generalist operations or service manager with broad commercial experience, you know how to find me. All offers considered and confidentiality assured.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Unfreedom of Information

John Hemming MP has made great play of his attacks on secrecy in the court system - he has declared himself unavailable for ministerial service because of his exploits in the family courts (although that might not stop him running for Mayor of Birmingham). He broke a court injunction to name a footballer who had failed in his attempts to keep his identity secret through the judicial system, but when it came to voting for the release of the NHS Risk Register this week, he reverted to type and voted slavishly with the government.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dancing along the third rail

"As we stand on the verge of possibly irreversible damage to one of the hallmarks of what it is to live in a civilised country, it is time to rise up and defend an institution that was built by our parents and our grandparents and which we owe to our children and our grandchildren to maintain and to pass on to them and to their guardianship"
Professor John Ashton, Director of Public Health, Cumbria

For expressing his views in a cogent, well-argued piece defending the public interest in the National Health Service and for signing a letter opposing the reforms, Professor Ashton is to be called in front of the board of the PCT to explain his actions, as the NHS management tries to scare critics into silence. If they can implicitly threaten this senior official - what hope for the more junior ones?

Like this waiting list clerk, who reveals the depths to which the PCT management will sink to get their waiting lists down  to ensure that they look good against government targets.
She was told to cancel operations for anyone who was already waiting over 18 weeks, and instead to fill that theatre time with people closest to breaching the 18-week limit. "I was told to call people who had already gone over the 18 weeks and pretend there was no longer theatre time for their operation, and not give them a new date... We would offer operations at very short notice to people getting near the 18-week deadline. You hope they'd say no so you count them as a refusal and knock them off... Did the consultants know? "One complained, really upset at not getting patients seen according to priority of need, but they bullied him and he was told to be quiet. They warned that Monitor inspectors would put us on alert."
And yet, while the government bullies staff and fights a desperate rearguard action against a demand by the Information Commissioner's Office that they release the national risk register - expected to detail the problems that may be caused by these reforms - they find time to stage manage a publicity stunt. Monday saw Cameron gather the Bill's remaining supporters - and those who remain prepared to engage with a government that abandoned listening for a bulldozer some while ago - for a summit at No 10. This involved around a dozen organisations and lasted an hour - meaning that it is unlikely that those attending were able to speak for more than two or three minutes each, as the Secretary of State and Prime Minister at least would have insisted on chattering for a while. As has been mentioned elsewhere, the increasingly long list of outright opponents was excluded in its entirety - cutting out the representatives of those apparently trusted to actually deliver the reforms, the GPs (amongst others). So much for no decision about me without me - that doesn't apply to our doctors.

Cameron has tied himself to the mast of these reforms and committed to them passing, come what may. That means he's now going to have every fault in the NHS laid squarely at his door. Dave - welcome to the third rail. Even if we haven't yet got to the bottom of events at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary last week, Cameron and Lansley can expect an increasingly rough ride. As the cuts start to bite into the NHS, no amount of spin and massaging of figures will help - the public will start to see the effect. Sadly, by then it may be too late.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Framing the right

Julie Meyer has produced this 'new lexicon' of conservative speak. Much of it mirrors what we've seen in the US and if you haven't read Frank Luntz' excellent book 'Words that Work', you need to. Essentially, you can define an argument by the words that you use. Julie includes this handy list here - which should act as a bingo card for political discussion. I've added a couple of my own and I may try and add more. Let me know if you see any others.

Do not say
accumulating wealthsaving for later
affordable housingsubsidised housing
austerityliving within our means
bailing out the bankspoliticians bailing out the banks
broadest shoulderssomeone else
commercialwhat people want
cutsbringing back to reasonable spending levels /
efficiencies / savings
fair share“I don't know where to start to describe what's wrong here”
fair share of taxesexcessive taxes
fair tradefree trade
fairnessreward for effort
fat catsentrepreneurs
free (state services)taxpayers’ money
greedy bankersgreedy government
he earns more than the PMhe earns less than the PM if you  include the PM’s benefits
income inequalityreward for effort
investment (state)spending
key workerskey voters
national insurance contributiontax on jobs
poverty is inequalitypoverty is absolute
progressive taxationdisproportionate taxation
public sectorbig government
public servicesservices
quantitative easingprinting money
redistributionpunishing success
regulationsred tape
safety netstate hammock
state created jobsprivate jobs taxed out of existence
the richpeople who have done well
wealthnest egg
welfare statesomething-for-nothing society

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Back in the headlines again

To be honest, I've steered a little clear of the travails of the Hemming family in recent years - despite his wife being convicted of burglary and taking a cat without the owner's consent in a week or so of utter legal madness. I have noted privately that should I ever be up before the judge, I would like Christine Hemming's brief - the redoubtable Gerry Bermingham - on my side, as he came within a hair's breadth of getting an acquittal on what looked on the face of it like an open and shut case, given the CCTV evidence stacked against her.

For years now, the backstory of the Hemmings has played out over the pages of the local and the national press - who can forget how John waited until the 2005 election was in the bag before admitting that he had impregnated his PA and fellow councillor, Emily Cox (since defenestrated as Moseley and Kings Heath Labour party started clearing out the yellow peril in their ward) and so angered his wife that she accused him of having waded through 26 women since their marriage. A fact that John specifically denies. One thing to bear in mind with John Hemming is that he chooses his words carefully to mean exactly what he wants them to mean. If he denies that there were 26 women, I have no doubt that there were not 26. It doesn't mean that there weren't 25 or 27. After all, Nick Clegg demonstrated his manhood by claiming more than 30 notches on his bedpost, so it must be something about Liberal Democrats.

John has also never been shy of publicity - any publicity will do. He admitted his affair with Ms Cox during a 'hogwhimperingly' drunken lunch with his old university mate, Ian Hislop, so cannot have been shocked at the coverage that it got. He nominated himself for Love Rat of the Year and never misses a chance to get his name and face in the paper. Last week, the Sunday Mercury broke the news that Emily is again with child and on the Restirred forum, John was dismissive of the story
It is up to the media as to what they wish to report. I did not release either story to the newspaper. and then bemoaned the fact that his parliamentary work had been ignored. 
Amazingly, he has now given a hard-hitting interview on the big issues of the day to the Daily Telegraph. Oh no, silly me - he's talking, or not talking about, his peculiar domestic arrangements.

I've never moralised about John's behaviour and I don't intend to start now. I just wish he'd stop revelling in it - it demeans the office that he is lucky enough to hold and makes him a laughing stock. The people of Yardley deserve better and come 2015, they will certainly get it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Whoops - Birmingham Lib Dems call for tax increase on low paid

This afternoon, Cllr Ray Hassall and Cllr Neil Eustace will lay a motion before Birmingham City Council - in more than one way. It should be a simple task to write a back-slapping motion that congratulates their party on something or other, but their motion, as originally submitted, has quite a different meaning to that which we may assume they intended.
This Council notes that:

  • 20% of Birmingham residents who are employed earn £10,500 or less.
  • the average household income in the city is £1,800 less than the national average.
  • the difference between the national average & city average increased by over £700 between 2006 and 2011.
  • the £1,000 the increase in the tax threshold to £7.475 in 2011/2 and a further increase to £8,105 in the 2012/13 tax year.
  • the Governments commitment to increase the tax threshold to £10,000 by 2015.
This Council also notes that reducing tax thresholds for hard working Birmingham residents will result in them paying £700 per year less income tax and taking low earners out of paying tax all together. Council therefore welcomes the reduction tax thresholds which will provide additional income for hard pressed families and result in the stimulation of the local economy.
(Emphasis added, all other text exactly as presented)


Good job these two don't do anything important, eh? Ray was only cabinet member for culture until deposed by Martin Mullaney (I'm sure Ray will be delighted to lend Martin a hand in his campaign this year). And Neil is just chair of the public protection committee.

Or perhaps Neil and Ray actually support increasing taxes.

Now, while INCREASING tax thresholds is superficially attractive, the policy isn't perfect. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies puts it "income taxes are not well targetted to help the poorest in society."

It doesn't help the poorest. If your income is below the tax threshold - like that of many pensioners - you won't see any gain. This change won't help all of those employed residents who earn less than £10,500.

Around a quarter of adults nationally live in households where they don't earn enough to pay tax and the poorest 10% will benefit by a whopping 72 pence a week - rather less than they have lost through the VAT tax hike that the Lib Dems campaigned against before 2010, which is costing families at least £389 a year extra (on top of inflation and fuel costs that the Liberal Democrats have failed to control).

Everybody else benefits rather more, as this graph from the IPPR demonstrates. Indeed, the top 10% band of household incomes benefits more than the bottom 20%. A full-time worker on the minimum wage will see about £500 extra a year, but those working less than 24 hours a week won't see any gain at all. (I'd like to see Ray and Neil - financial wizards that they are - justify the claim that it will lead to a £700 tax cut. Perhaps they should ask Tory Cllr John Alden to explain tax to them.)

And then there's the cost. The IPPR project this to cost £13 billion - which is either £13 billion in taxes to find or £13 billion in cuts to make. For all that effort, only 7% of that cost will be spent in taking those low earners out of tax, but 66% is used to help households in the top half of the income spread. Is that really an efficient use of resources? Will the households who see themselves dragged into the 40% tax band and facing the loss of child benefit thank the Liberal Democrats?

As the IPPR points out, if you want to boost the income of low income households, the tax credit model is far more effective, but this government - of which Eustace and Hassall are clearly enthusiastic supporters - is attacking that piece of genuinely redistributive taxation. Childcare tax credits are being cut back - something that will directly affect the ability of some working parents to find work.

This plan is unquestionably well-intentioned, but the reality is founded in simplistic and superficial spin rather than real substantial gains to poorer, working families. For some, it will actually impose a disincentive to work or to seek promotion. Laudable in its aims, this is simply the wrong policy to pursue - a publicity success, but a practical failure.

In fact, the motion as put forward by Cllrs Hassall and Eustace may actually be Freudian in its accuracy - the outcome could be a hike in VAT to 22% to cover the cost , according to a tax specialist from PriceWaterhouseCoopers.


While I wish Emily and John well, people generally break the news of a child with - at most - a small advert in the paper. The front page of the the regional Sunday paper is a little in your face. Still, any publicity, eh?

At least John's family won't be affected by the benefit cap that he cheerfully voted through last week.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Pickled again

"It's a basic right for every English man and woman to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected"
Eric Pickles, September 2011 

Friday saw Chairman Eric launch his much-vaunted 'Weekly Collection Support Scheme' to restore weekly bin collections, to cheers from the usual Tory suspects in the media - when they weren't otherwise occupied revelling in the downfall (temporarily or otherwise) of Chris Huhne. The Telegraph even headlined their online article with a picture of Birmingham, which has never moved to fortnightly collections of residual waste.

There is something interesting in it - a council that currently collects 'residual waste' fortnightly (that's the non-recyclables) can introduce a weekly 'food waste' collection scheme and benefit from the funding, as can an authority that currently collects weekly. However, if a council wants to introduce a weekly food waste collection scheme and go to fortnightly residual collections, they are excluded, as are those currently in the process of making the switch.

This is not only an anomaly (as it would assure people of their basic human rights to be able to bin a partly-eaten curry), it will actually prove inefficient. The evidence from many councils that have introduced a weekly food waste collection is that the amount of residual waste then drops massively, so that a fortnightly collection is all that is required.

Aside from that, the problems still remain - the funding is only for three years of a five year commitment, so councils have to fund the remaining two years themselves. It isn't enough - estimates suggest that returning to a weekly model would cost somewhere north of £500 million and councils already bearing the brunt of Pickles' funding cuts have other things on their minds. Additionally, fortnightly collections improve recycling figures, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the amount sent to landfill and thus reducing the money that councils have to pay in landfill tax. Why would anyone adopt a policy that will actually end up costing them money?

Pickles claims that 80 councils have already given private assurances that they will return to weekly collections, but although the Telegraph reckons that this is half of the 160 English authorities that have gone across to fortnightly collections, I suspect that it represents about 80 authorities overall - including those who currently collect weekly. You only have to trawl a few of the local news sites online to find council after council rejecting a return to fortnightly collections, although some will be bidding to offer additional services.

The Tory/Lib Dem Regressive Partnership in Birmingham have already promised to make an application to this scheme, so we can expect that preserving the weekly collection will be one of their rallying cries this May. Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley also collect weekly and are looking to apply for funding, but other authorities like Lichfield - a beacon of success in recycling and one that has fortnightly collections - are still to decide whether they need to apply.

I have no doubt that this scheme will be fully subscribed and the money will be put to use on worthwhile projects to deal with waste, but I still maintain that very few - if any - councils will restore the weekly waste collections that Eric holds so dear.

Welcome home Harry...

"For me it was good that the Lib Dems would be fighting our corner. But he has become a whipping boy and it seems to me that he has been totally used by the Tories - anything they don't want badly reflected on them they reflect on to him. I think, if you make a lot more money than most people - like I do - you should pay more tax and subsidise people who work just as hard as you, but don't earn as much. From what I've seen of Ed Miliband, I really like him and he speaks for what I believe in. I think he's genuine, genuinely leftwing, and will act as such if he gets in."
Daniel Radcliffe sees the light.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Cameron - truth economist

Observers of PMQs have noted that David Cameron has been particularly poor at giving accurate answers - he may give good quotes that cheer his backbenchers, but they seem to suffer from a lack of fact to support them. Michael Dugher dismantles some of them here, following on from Jason Beattie's observations in the Mirror. And now, Dave has praised Plymouth's new Enterprise Zone, despite the fact that it hasn't got one.

He's nothing more than a PR man and he knows perfectly well that the first story gets the headline coverage - corrections and clarifications are often ignored or hidden down at the bottom of page 94.

Is it that he doesn't know - or just that he doesn't care?