27 March 2014

Workfare costs jobs?

Mention "Workfare" to DWP/JCP and you're likely to be told that they don't do it. However some of their schemes match this Wikipedia article quite closely. Simply put, Workfare is where benefit claimants have to work in order to continue to receive benefits. The JCP "Mandatory Work Activity" scheme is one example as well as some of the options in the benign-sounding "Help to Work"

There are many arguments about the desirability of Workfare but one strand is that claimants work for their benefit and are effectively paid less than £3 per hour when the minimum wage is £6.31/hour. This leads to allegations that employers are getting cheap labour and are sacking ordinary workers and using Workfare participants in their place.

If it's true, it's scandalous - a scheme that's supposed to help the unemployed is actually causing more unemployment.

Now, JCP are aware of this issue and typically their guidance says things like:
Placements must be additional to any existing or expected vacancies. You must ensure that employers are not taking advantage of MWA as a source of labour at the expense of employing workers in the open labour market.
This is fine but I wondered how and if JCP ensure that no one is losing their job this way? My first FOI request didn't fare too well. Not only did I use the "W" word, I asked for information covering several years, all schemes and  wanted guidance, monitoring, research, audit schemes, etc. So they invoked section 12 of the Act and said the work would cost over £600 so they could decline to comply.

More interestingly, they went on to suggest that if I fixed that problem by asking for a narrower category of information, they might invoke Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act. This exemption relates to the commercial interests of the Department for Work and Pensions and any other company or organisation delivering services on their behalf .

Now, this exemption is often deployed in answer to questions about Workfare (example) because 
we have become aware of various campaigns aimed at harming the commercial interests of companies involved in delivering the Work Programme as well as a potentially undermining Government policy.
Anyway, I asked for clarification on the 43(2) issue and was told:
that it was felt that some of the information falling within the scope of your original request may be exempt under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act. Though this can not be confirmed unless the information is collated and a public interest test is conducted.
Emboldened, I submitted another request asking for a narrower set of information and we'll see what that brings. The answer is due on April 1st!

PS(02 Apr 14) : The answer was very disapointing. There was some waffle abou the "strict guidelines that ensure advantage is not taken in the use of MWA as a source of labour at the expense of employing workers in an open labour market.". However the reseach into compliance with the guidelines was not supplied. It looks like they've done no research and so don't hold any information. The FOI Act allows, nay requires them to say so if it's the case. I've submitted a reveiw request that I hope will resolve the issue one way or another

For the final(?) chapter, see here

25 March 2014

A new and clever excuse for DWP not providing information?

This story starts with an FOI request by one James Wild concerning "Compulsory Volunteering" asking a fairly technical question about the possibility that JCP advisers were mandating customers to take up "voluntary" work. Now, one of the problems with trying to get information this way is that if DWP can claim that it would be too much work, they can decline to answer. The Act says the limit is £600 which is equated to about 3.5 person-days work.

James had anticipated this problem and cunningly included the following in his request:
Ideally, I would like these figures for everywhere where any form of the Claimant Commitment is in use. If that would exceed the monetary limit, please restrict your search to half the relevant job centres and if necessary, a quarter, etc.
This approach of limiting the scope of a request often succeeds but on this occasion DWP still claimed it was too much work so James asked for a "review" commenting:
I doubt you applied this procedure and concluded that statistics for even one job centre would cost more than £600.
 In reply, DWP still refused and deployed an interesting further excuse
b) any statistics that DWP provide have to be verified against a set of strict quantitative parameters which as you will appreciate would not be cost effective in this case

2) DWP did apply the correct procedures in determining that the cost would exceed the £600 limit and this is true even on an office by office basis.
The part I've made bold is particularly interesting. As I've discussed before, DWP has attracted some criticism from the UK Statistics Authority,This may be behind their new-found enthusiasm for being seen to get their statistics right.

I may be cynical but it's also a very handy way of not publishing statistics that could be embarrassing.

23 March 2014

Better off in work?

The benefit reforms are supposed to give people an incentive to work by making them better off in work. This blog post  from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that work can give marginally more disposable income if you ignore transport and other in-work costs but points out:
The fact that you’re not better off on benefits doesn’t imply that working poverty is not a problem – both are still poverty but they are experienced differently with varying consequences. And many go from unemployment to low-paid work and back again, with 4.8 million different people claiming JSA in the last two years. The real issue is that households relying on either the national minimum wage or out-of-work benefits do not have a standard of living that is sufficient or acceptable in the UK today. There really is no need to set them against each other.

18 March 2014

MPs criticise DWP for 'spin' on official statistics and benefit claimants

Headline for an article in the Guardian today. Extract:
A report by the MPs warned the DWP to exercise care in the language used in its press releases and ministerial comments to ensure they do not feed into "negative preconceptions and prejudices about people on benefits". It cites examples in the past few months where the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) criticised the use of DWP statistics, including by the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, and Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps.
Full text here

12 March 2014

Job Centres and Food Banks

Great article by the Guardian. They've use a Freedom of Information Request to show:
... there is a "high level process" written by the DWP to be followed when benefit claimants say they are in hardship because of government policy and need food.

A six-step flowchart for jobcentre staff shows the four reasons to recommend an available food bank when claimants ask for help are hardship caused by benefit changes, benefit payment delays, a benefit advance has been refused, or the advance does not pay enough to meet their needs.
 It's a curious story because the government has been adamant that  Food Banks form no part of their policy. Luciana Berger the shadow public health minister tried to get the documentation but Esther McVey wouldn't release it saying "It is not common practice in DWP to publish internal guidance."

In fact DWP internal guidance is all over the Internet mainly from FOI requests. Which is how the Guardian. got it. And how we get it for this blog.

9 March 2014

Proving that information does NOT exist

Sometimes you suspect or even want to prove that a government department does NOT know something.  Here's some reasons why you might want to do that:

  • The Minister is denying that a policy has adverse effects so you ask for the research they've conducted showing the lack of problems. If they have good evidence, that's fine, if not, it's embarrassing.
  • You're in dispute with the department and being sure you have all their guidance on the particular subject will help you.

I was reminded of this by a request where the member of the public got a less than precise reply. So he's asked for a Review in these terms:
You have stated that the information is already available. However, this presupposes that the information you have linked to is the *only* such information the Department holds. If so, the Department can comply with the request by confirming that this is indeed the case. The request was for all such information held, not merely an example.
There is a problem with asking for all information on a subject though. It creates a lot of work and if it would cost the department more than £600 (about 3.5 days work) then they are entitled to reject the request. The limit is lower for bodies that are not part of central government. There are ways around this and I may write them up soon.