The government’s new programme designed to support disabled and other people into work is excluding voluntary sector providers at the expense of the private sector, a minister has heard.
Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, was told that charities were already withdrawing from the new Work Programme, which was suffering from a “serious lack of accountability”.
Patrick Butler, editor of society, health and education policy for The Guardian, told the fringe meeting that nearly all the organisations awarded “prime” contracts under the Work Programme were from the private and public sector, even though employment minister Chris Grayling had described the award of the contracts as a “boost for the Big Society”.
Butler said it was “just not financially viable” for charities to take part in the programme, which they were describing as “hugely bureaucratic, time-consuming and high-risk”.
He said many charities that originally signed up to work with large private sector companies as “sub-contractors” were now withdrawing, claiming these companies had used them as “bid candy” to win government contracts, before offering unacceptable financial rewards to work with them as sub-contractors.
Butler said there was a “serious lack of accountability”, with no clear picture of how the government would accurately measure the success of the “primes” in order to pay them by results.
Ralph Michell, head of policy for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), said that charities’ experiences of subcontracting had been “far from universally positive”.
He also said primes had been asked by the government not to publish weekly data showing how they were performing – as some had done under Labour’s work schemes – a claim confirmed by a representative of one of the providers.
Michell added: “It really cannot be right that a government committed to transparency is asking primes to put out less information than they used to.”
Butler said it was “absolutely astonishing” that there was “no openness”, and added: “We don’t know how these companies are doing.”
And he pointed out that many of the providers that had performed poorly under Labour’s job schemes had won prime contracts under the Work Programme.
Lord Freud said it was “early days” with the programme, and added: “I am expecting a lot of change and I think a lot of the savvy third sector and public sector organisations will be positioning themselves to get that business. There is a huge amount of learning to be done.”
He said the government was “throwing a huge amount of money” at the problem, with nearly £14,000 to be paid to providers that can secure permanent employment for the “hardest to help”, a group that will include many disabled people. And he claimed the contracts were “quite toughly-run”.
Meanwhile, an estimated 200 disabled workers from Remploy joined a mass TUC anti-cuts march outside the conference.
The next day, they leafleted Conservative party members – following similar actions at the Labour and Liberal Democrat conferences – in protest at plans laid out in the Sayce review of employment support for disabled people.
The review suggested an end to government ownership and funding for Remploy, and the closure of factories which were “not viable”.
Woodward said the response from Conservative party members to their leaflets had been “surprisingly positive”, while “the government’s thinking on this is muddled to say the least”.
He said: “Our argument is that Remploy factories should be an integral part of any programme that gives disabled people work.
“If you close the factories in Wales, for example, where are [disabled]people going to find these jobs?”
4 October 2011