Fiona MacTaggart MP (Labour, Slough) is a member of the public accounts select committee
In politics often you plug away at an issue with no-one noticing, and then it becomes big news.
Over the last two years I had reported A4e, which is contracted to provide services to unemployed people in my constituency, three times to the national auditor. When the police went into their Slough offices and arrested four former employees, the company hit the headlines.
It turned out that as well as asking clients to sign blank timesheets, officials of this company had claimed payment for jobs which had only lasted for one day.
A4e has become successful by cutting its costs, and often provides poor service to unemployed people. Some unemployed people have been happy to keep quiet; those who never wanted a job in the first place were content to attend “courses” where they read newspapers, or to pretend they had attended when they had not.
But the constituents who complained to me wanted to escape unemployment and often knew exactly what extra qualification they needed to get into work. The problem was, they could not afford it from job seekers allowance of £67.50 per week. Often the company implied it could help, but only offered courses which had little worth and no recognition.
Since I have been raising concerns, I have been approached by many people who feel let down by A4e. Many of them were taken on by A4e itself into unpaid roles in the company, doing unsupervised work including training other unemployed people, working as a receptionist, filing records, and so on. None of them have been employed into a paid role.
And that is an important issue which has not been addressed. These schemes can give people experience of work. But too often it is someone else’s work, and an unpaid worker substitutes for a paid worker. In many entry level jobs it has become very hard for people to work enough hours to qualify for tax credits and other help for the low paid.
Ironically companies like A4e are pursuing a policy which reduces the total number of jobs available, and although Jobcentre Plus guidelines suggest that work experience referrals should not be used to cover busy times, there are no clear guidelines to prevent wholesale job substitution.
Emma Harrison, the boss of A4e, took over £8million out of the company last year: all profits from our taxes. I think we have a right to insist that we get high standards of service in return.
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