Pass the sick bag not the pop corn: US verdict on DWP’s privatised sick note service

Last week I revealed how Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, had awarded a new contract to Health Management Ltd, subsidiary of US multinational company, Maximusto take over from doctors  to decide when you should return to work if you claim more than four weeks sick pay.

The programme is to be rolled out from November to next May aims to save up to £165 million a year by getting people back to work faster as part of Lord Freud’s welfare reforms. Effectively it will mean you will get a telephone consultation  from a call centre and be emailed when you should return to work. If don’t co-operate you will lose your benefit.

The company’s press release reveals the 63 month contract will be rolled out first in Wales, the Midlands and the North before it hits the more affluent South.

Richard A  Montoni, the multi billionaire chief executive explained:“The Health and Work Service program is a natural opportunity to demonstrate Health Management’s expertise as the UK’s largest occupational health care provider and an important step in our long-term goal of expanding in this important market.

“While we expect an initial start-up loss due to the nature of the contract, the overall program economics are strong and once ramped, the contract is in-line with our targeted range of portfolio performance.”

Now through using a website called Glassdoor I have discovered what employees and ex-employees in the US think of Maximus. If you feared it was going to be a cheapskate alternative to your GP – aimed at using low paid, untrained, overworked people in call centres while maximising its profits for overpaid bosses you are right..The customer or claimant seems the least of their concerns.

These are a selection of their comments:

“When starting the business I asked for instructions on how to complete basic daily administrative tasks essential for audit. I was told by my colleagues and my manager not to bother as “we never do it”. Six months later, after figuring out, off my own back how to do it, Head Office comes down like a tonne of bricks on the office stating they have not been done and have failed audit. On top of this I worked with racist, homophobic and disgruntled colleagues who were obnoxious, lazy and didn’t give a damn. My line manager refused to verify my work as he was too lazy

“Management has absolutely no people skills. Little to no room for advancement unless you are related to a director. Unqualified employees are in management positions.”

“Almost everything in my team was micro-managed. One of the Directors was a control-freak and insecure about “loosing his relevance”. So “just to stay relevant” he created “red-tape” processes by making every small change go thru him with his approval, causing delays to routine work cycles.

“Managers and supervisors only care about bonus for themselves.Representatives can easily be disqualified for bonus. There is also too much favoritism among employees. Promotions happen on the basis if they like you or not and not so much on your qualifications. Some managers like to micro manage their staff by setting excessive production goals. Supervisors are under-qualified and possess little to no people skills.

“At MAXIMUS there is little to no room for advancement or growth. …This company makes unreasonable demands for staff to complete work and unreasonable deadlines. This company does not support personal time off due to family/personal issues.” (so they won’t sympathise with you if you are sick)

“No work/life balance. Projects are incredibly understaffed, combined with perpetually tight deadlines, resulting in an average work week of 60-80 hours. Long nights and lots of weekends.

“Upper management often promotes with in their own inner circle and rarely promotes anyone from operations. Most management has little to no hands on experience and are typically hired because they come cheap or are hired by someone they know.”

Of course not everybody is critical. There are some pro company pieces but they are mainly because evidently the firm offer free medical insurance ( not an issue here yet!), the commute to work was easy and some of the colleagues were good mates.

As one said: “Fairly normal work hours, decent training, clean environment, clean restrooms, free coffee, good feelings from helping people when all goes smoothly, being able to trade shifts with other workers, getting paid every week as a temp, working independently.”

and as a plus “On Fridays we have someone come to our desks with free bags of popcorn.”

No doubt that makes everything fine I think if half of this is true it more a case of pass the sick bag than the pop corn!


Crunch week for the Child Sex Abuse inquiry

fiona woolf, new chair of the CSA inquiry; pic credit:

fiona woolf, new chair of the CSA inquiry; pic credit:

The future direction of the overarching inquiry into child sexual abuse announced by Theresa May, the home secretary, should become clearer next week.

I understand from more than one source that Fiona Woolf, the new chairman  and Lord Mayor of London, is likely to make a statement setting out exactly what her connection is with her near neighbours Leon and Diana Brittan following criticism  about them by Simon Danczuk, one of the MPs who backed the need for an inquiry , and survivors alarmed at another cover- up at Westminster.

As I write in Exaro today she has  been under fire from the Mail on Sunday about her links mainly with Leon’s wife Diana, whom she also served under for three years as a magistrate in the City of London. The Mail on Sunday is expected to return to the fray tomorrow.

Her appointment has been defended by one of the key members and a survivor himself, Graham Wilmer. As he told Exaro;

“I think that she is the right person for the job. We need someone who is not involved in the issues of child sex abuse who can apply a legal mind to a very complex and wide-ranging inquiry.

“I have been on too many inquiries entirely composed of experts on child sex abuse who spend their time arguing and do not come to a conclusion.”

Tom Watson has also  backed an inquiry going ahead despite misgivings from survivors about Fiona WEoolf’s connection with the Brittans. His blog explains.

But Simon Danczuk is still pursuing the issue.

He challenged William Hague, now leader of the House, in Parliament on Thursday demanding a debate.

He told him :“Although I am anxious for the inquiry to be got up and running, I am disturbed by the apparent links between the new chair and Lord Brittan, who is alleged to be at the heart of the paedophile scandal and cover-up surrounding Westminster.”

Mr Hague defended her: “She is a very distinguished person, who is well able to conduct the inquiry to the very highest standards of integrity.

“The government is therefore confident that she has the skills and experience needed to set the direction of the inquiry, lead the work of the panel, challenge individuals and institutions without fear or favour, really get into this issue and stop these terrible things happening again. I think that we should support her in doing this work.”

At present the Lord Mayor is abroad in Africa. You could find out all about her on her website.

She has a full programme of business trips for the City of London. You can find out about them here She is in Africa until September 18, goes to Latvia from September 21-24 and to China and Vietnam from October 5- 15.

How the inquiry develops will depend on Fiona Woolf’s response to the allegations, who else is appointed to the committee and its terms of reference. Hopefully all will be revealed by the end of next week.

Child Sex Abuse Inquiry: A job half done by Theresa May

Job half done:Theresa May, home sercretary. Pic Credit:

Job half done:Theresa May, home sercretary. Pic Credit:

Will the second attempt  by Theresa May, the home secretary, to restart the process  of setting up an overarching inquiry into child sexual abuse fall into another elephant trap?

Within days of her appointment Fiona Woolf, the Lord Mayor of London and  lawyer, to chair the inquiry questions about her suitability have surfaced in  the Mail on Sunday because of her links with the family of Leon Brittan.

Survivors who might be tempted to give evidence will be alarmed at any link with Leon Brittan  for many reasons.The row about the loss of papers by the Home Office sent in by the former MP the late Geoffrey Dickens which are alleged to named paedophiles during his watch in the early 1980s is one.

He is also- even though he vehemently denies the allegation –  still the subject of a Met Police investigation into the rape of young woman before he became an MP.

Fiona Woolf needs to clarify exactly what the relationship with her neighbours, the Brittans is- not for prurient interest in her private life – but to assure worried  survivors that no friendship will cloud judgements. Frankly it shouldn’t. If it is purely tenuous there should be no problem, if it isn’t there could be one.

But why are we back to this?

Given the furore over the appointment of first chair, Baroness Butler- Sloss, who resigned after Exaro revealed the conflict of interest because her late brother, Lord Havers, a former attorney general, had been involved in restricting the terms of the inquiry into the Kincora scandal in Northern Ireland, you would have thought every avenue would have been followed to avoid a similar problem.

As I reported over the weekend on the Exaro website indeed  at least 60 candidates were considered and  it was said to have been properly vetted by home office officials.

But before a final judgement is made we need to see the full picture – the full terms of reference, the rest of the people appointed to the inquiry, and then pass judgement.

This is because the rest of  the appointments – some of them brave –  do ensure there will be independent voices on the panel.None of the rest can be connected with the Establishment.

Graham Wilmer, whom followers of this blog will be familiar,is no push over. He is a survivor himself, a  vigorous campaigner against abuse in the Salesian order, and also runs the Lantern project in the Wirral which helps survivors, though has not received the money that is needed to really tackle the problem. He also sits on a committee about safeguarding survivors chaired by the Bishop of Durham, which is currently looking at what more work it should do.

Barbara Hearn, the former deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, whom I have also met, has been wrongly traduced on Twitter just because in a previous age the body was associated with the  paedophile Peter Righton. At the moment she is providing campaigning MP Tom Watson – who raised the Righton scandal in Parliament- with expert help on how to help and counsel the many survivors who come to him.. For the record she is doing this on a voluntary basis, the antithesis of the view that anyone in Parliament must be on a gravy train.

Then there is Professor Alexis Jay, who as expert adviser, to the committee, record speaks for itself. She is the person who exposed the unbelievable scandal in Rotherham – a fount of knowledge of the exploitation of young people by sex abusers.

Finally there is the counsel, Ben Emmerson, He is not only a human rights lawyer but the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism. He is currently looking at the use of drones  to kill terrorists and more often innocent citizens in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.. His work is not exactly going to please the US and UK governments and campaigning MP, Tom Watson, is also backing him to the hilt over this issue as well.

Now he is going to devote his considerable legal expertise to tackling child sexual abuse and whether there have been cover ups in this country.

All this means – if there is another row over the setting up of this inquiry – we must not throw everything out.

Now is the time for careful thought and analysis not rushed judgements -Theresa May’s job is only half done.





Coming Soon: The privatised sick note service that will email you back to work

In two months time the traditional doctor’s note excusing you from work will start to cease being valid if you are still sick after four weeks.

Just before Parliament went into the summer recess welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, announced that a US multinational company,Maximus, which also operates in Canada and Saudi Arabia will take over running the new Health and Work Service for England and Wales.

My report in this week’s Tribune  reveals that up to one million people will be affected by the change which appears to be aimed to save the government money.

Maximus runs call centres, occupational health programmes, child support and job seekers programmes abroad and in the United Kingdom.

The programme is to be rolled out from November to next May aims to save up to £165 million a year by getting people back to work faster as part of Lord Freud’s welfare reforms.

The Scottish government  has declined to contract out the work to the private firm and will keep the assessment programme as part of the public service.

More worryingly it appears that the private company which will make the decision will not see anyone – and create a Return to Work programme  via  a call centre telephone interview and a decision by email.

The package is supposed to be agreed between the sick person and the private company and sent to both the individual and their employer. Failure to co-operate with the service will mean the individual will lose their sick pay.

Lord Freud is quoted in a DWP press release emphasising how the scheme will improve economic productivity and get people back to work faster.

He says:”Providing support where it’s needed most will help to reduce the length of time employees take off sick which, in turn, will cut sick pay costs, improve economic output and reduce the chances of people falling out of work and having to claim benefits. “

After the cruel and nasty system that forced disabled people  to find work or lose benefits run by the French company, ATOS, I have a suspicion that this new system could push the sick back to work before they are ready.

While ATOS did this by personal interviews and tests, Maximus look like putting the sick back to work without examining them to see they are fit and well. No doubt the government will see it as another way to tackle the workshy. But even employers’ advisers are sceptical about this. This new development needs watching.

Why the Church has to atone for decades of child sexual abuse

Just before I went on holiday I penned a piece for Exaro on moves under discussion by the Anglican and Methodists to start tackling  the huge legacy of child sexual abuse by priests and teachers employed by the church..

For once it was more optimistic piece suggesting that at long last church leaders were realising that they had to say more than sorry and had to start taking responsibility for what had happened and is still happening.

I was  a bit taken aback to find some strong Twitter responses suggesting that overnight I had turned from an investigative journalist to an apologist for the Anglican church and a budding correspondent for Church Times. Ironically it came just as the Church appear to think that I might have gone too far in highlighting what they were contemplating before they had reached a final decision.

The piece on the Exaro website highlights the work of the joint safeguarding liaison group for Anglicans and Methodists which is now looking at earmarking money to three groups – including the Lantern project in Wirral – to provide counselling for church sex abuse victims. This move is by itself welcome – given counselling has not been properly provided for thousands of victims whatever the government may like to claim.

The campaign group, Stop Church Child Abuse, says that hundreds of clergy with claims against them of child abuse have not been prosecuted, pointing out that safeguarding procedures allow bishops to keep such allegations away from the authorities. These procedures may not be changed.

Also Exaro has established that the CoE was pressing the government more than a year ago to set up a full-scale inquiry into child sex abuse in a range of institutions in the UK – long before Theresa May, the home secretary, decided to set up an independent panel and when David Cameron was being at best equivocal and at worst ignoring the scale of the problem.

I make no apologies for reporting some of the more positive moves by the Church. But make no mistake I will continue to pursue the issue and investigate the large number of cases where the authorities have failed and people’s lives ruined as a result.




Hidden Brittany: The petit delights of Dol-de-Bretagne

Mont St Michel: Viewed from  the almost  deserted Dol Marsh

Mont St Michel: Viewed from the almost deserted Dol Marsh

Just back from a two week break in Brittany with the grandkids where to my surprise very little has changed once you get off the motorways. Rural France has empty roads, open spaces and places to visit without meeting the crowds at the height of the tourist season. Indeed two places we visited which commanded just a sentence in the Michelin Green Guide we had to ourselves.

Our destination was a busy campsite just outside the medieval town of Dol-de-Bretagne – a place which is more likely to attract French tourists than the English – and most of the people do not speak English. It also stages a medieval tournament in August celebrating the rivalries in France once the English had been defeated!

Once away from the huge international tourist Des Ormes campsite with its five swimming pools, horse riding,golf and zip wire, you can find places that have hardly changed in centuries.

View from Mount Dol over Brittany and the coast

View from Mount Dol over Brittany and the coast

Most popular with us was Mont Dol -a 208 foot high granite mound. approached by a narrow road with a midway hairpin bend. Despite its diminutive size- it offers stupendous views stretching for miles across the Brittany-Normandy border, a tower, an old windmill, picnic area, children’s playground and a creperie.

Going to collect cockles and mussels French style

Going to collect cockles and mussels French style

In front of the mound lies a bit of France that resembles  coastal Norfolk and Suffolk – a large expanse of salt marshes and drained farmland with dykes. Here only a few miles from the overcrowded  mega tourist attraction of Mont St Michael are deserted bays, huge open skies, roads and tracks only frequented by cyclists and people searching for cockles and mussels.

Ruined castle at Hede

Ruined castle at Hede

Inland were the towns of Combourg – which has its own cheese – and Hede. The former has a lake and a chateau , the latter is on a hill with a ruined castle where we had the place to ourselves and the grandkids discovered a secret passage. The only public warning was not to nick the stones.

Friendly lemur at the zoo

Friendly lemur at the zoo

We also discovered a more popular zoo at a Bourbansais Chateau. – again set in gardens with everything from lions to lemurs. It also had its own pack of hunting dogs who put on a daily display – without killing anything!

Cheeky grandson Leon in the ruined cloisters at Le Tronchet

Cheeky grandson Leon in the ruined cloisters at Le Tronchet

But probably the quietest spot was a a half ruined former Benedictine abbey at Le Tronchet – a small village- which turned out to have a garden attached to it with picnic tables. Again apart from two French cyclists we had the place to ourselves.

It’s still great to know that you can find places in August where you can get away from the crowds if you want peace and quiet- even with four grandchildren.


Elm Guest House: Child abuse charges to be reinstated

A very important decision has been taken by the Crown Prosecution Service to reinstate charges against John Stingemore,the former deputy manager, of Grafton Close children’s home in Richmond.

Stingemore and Father Tony McSweeney,already face  a trial next February on a series of child sex abuse charges and have pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them.

The full story by my colleague Mark Conrad is on the Exaro website.but in essence it involved the CPS reviewing the  charges after a complaint from Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who revealed the scale of the scandal against Sir Cyril Smith, and planned action by Tom Watson MP to help the witness involved.

Exaro revealed last December that the CPS had withdrawn four charges based on accusations by one witness, but had made a serious mistake about the evidence gathered by the Metropolitan Police Service’s paedophile unit under Operation Fernbridge. It led to an adverse view of the witness’s credibility.


While it would be wrong to reveal the full details of the circumstances of the case in order not to prejudice the trial, the decision is important for two reasons.

First it shows that survivors accounts should not be brushed aside and second it suggests that the pressure the police and the CPS are under to handle so many child sexual abuse cases at the moment that they may not have had the time to examine all the details.

If it was not for active MPs like Simon and Tom who are prepared to take up cases like this, we would still be facing the danger of further cover ups and evidence not being tested by the courts.

The last thing we want is anything else not properly investigated when people have waited so long for justice.