The ‘big society’ Work Programme (and other myths)

The ‘big society’ Work Programme (and other myths)

Patrick Butler, The Guardian


The government lauded the Work Programme as a "big society" boost for local charities. But evidence suggest large private corporations are the real winners.


There’s an astonishing Radio Five Live interview with work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in which he is asked what he is doing for the "big society". Quick as a flash, he replies:


"I’ve created the Work Programme, which is all about the voluntary and private sector."


His words, recorded last week at the Conservative Party annual conference, suggest Duncan Smith is either deluded, or being kept in the dark by his officials. No fewer than three reports have been published this week, which show that while the Work Programme (WP) is very much about the private sector, it is in grave danger of having very little to do with either "big society" or the voluntary sector.


In my Society Guardian column today I drew on the findings of survey-based reports by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), and the London Voluntary Services Council (LVSC). Since then I’ve seen two other reports, one by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (published this week), and one (published in June) by Locality, who represent small community organisations.


They all reach the same conclusions: that the corporate prime contractors are exploiting or excluding their voluntary sector and social enterprise subcontractors, putting many at risk of going bust. They find that the programme is failing to meet the needs of vulnerable job seekers, such as homeless people, ex-offenders, and single mothers.


I’ve also been sent a link to an illuminating blog post by Voluntary Sector North West (VSNW), which reports on a meeting of voluntary sector WP subcontractors in the region (the post is also the source of the Iain Duncan Smith interview I refer to above).


It describes some of the alleged abuses and privations – some petty, some serious, some financial, some bureaucratic – inflicted on charities by the corporate prime contractors. They include this extraordinary allegation:


"There is a need to monitor what VCS organisations are ending up contributing to the Work Programme for no or inadequate payment. Many organisations have expressed concern that Prime Contractors are attempting to access third sector services free of charge."


Let’s though return to Duncan Smith’s claim that the Work Programme is all about the voluntary sector.


There are two main areas in which the voluntary sector could become involved in WP: as regional prime contractors (effectively managing agents for the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP]) or as subcontractors, providing the employment support services.


The latter group consists of two types: "first tier" contractors doing "end to end" support for jobless clients; and "second tier" contractors, for specific "spot purchased" support for clients with special requirements.


The prime contracts have overwhelmingly gone to corporates: the likes of Ingeus Deloitte, and A4E. The NCVO report summarises:


"Of the 18 organisations chosen only two are CSOs [Civil Society Organisations]. Of the 40 prime contracts offered by DWP only three were awarded to the civil society sector leaving 35 – or 88% – going to private sector organisations."


As I’ve reported before, the employment minister, Chris Grayling, suggested this didn’t matter because the voluntary sector would play a big role in the subcontractor tiers. But as NCVO points out:


"[Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude stated that 35 to 40 per cent of the value of the contracts under the Work Programme would go to the civil society sector and there were assurances in the Invitation to Tender (ITT) that the Work Programme would build on pre-existing levels of civil society sector involvement in the welfare to work sector – then at around 30 per cent (see pages 16-17).


These have proved false as demonstrated by Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) statistics that show the sector represents just 19.4 per cent of Work Programme supply chain composition."


This suggests that, overall, charities’ involvement in the field of welfare to work has actually diminished under the "big society" WP.


Of those charities who are supposedly part of the WP supply chain, many are getting little or no work passed to them.


Half of the 155 organisations who replied to the Acevo survey reported that they had had no referrals since the WP programme went live four months ago.


The LVSC report states that of the 25 charity tier two subcontractors working with primes in the London area, 23 report that they have had no referrals whatever.


What is the impact of this on voluntary sector subcontractors? Here’s Phil de Montmorency, director, skills and employment and offender services at St Mungos, a homeless charity:


"St. Mungos experience like many other specialist organisations is that we have had no referrals despite holding three tier two Work Programme contracts. It remains unclear whether the programme is committed to helping the most disadvantaged in society. These contracts we hold have no commitments to minimum numbers of volumes or clear prices and as a result are really not worth the paper they are written on.


As a direct result our business planning has become impossible. It really hurts when we have successfully proven services and a great reputation for innovation that we are being relegated to ‘a bit part role’ of one off interventions which we know will not work in addressing the needs of this client group. The upshot is that we are having to let vastly experienced staff go and re-structure our services to the detriment of all and with lasting impact."


I asked the DWP to comment on the reported lack of referrals to voluntary sector. A DWP spokesperson replied:


"The Work Programme is ahead in terms of overall referrals. We are working to make sure there is a good flow of referrals to providers."


I then asked the DWP whether it was taking any measures to address concerns that charities were being exploited by primes, or to ensure that charities did not go bust as a result of being starved of referrals. The DWP spokesperson said:


"DWP believes it is in prime providers’ interests to develop varied supply chains made up of financially viable organisations. But to ensure fair treatment of subcontractors, the Merlin Standard has been given contractual force."


Those answers may not exactly inspire confidence among voluntary sector providers that the government is actively managing the situation. But let’s return to the issue of the Work Programme as a supposed expression of big society. Here’s VSNW’s view:


"There is significant evidence to suggest that The Work Programme has been implemented as a top down, centrally delivered framework at the expense of local delivery, local capacity and local partnership-based working.


As such it threatens to remove many local people and communities of interest out of the loop of delivery and opportunity. It operates in a manner consistent with the worst kind of Big Government delivery programme and is antithetical to the principles of Fairness, Accountability, Diversity of Provider and Choice.


The model of the Work Programme framework does not put choice and control in the hands of people and local communities …"