Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, has defended his department’s decision to introduce contractual requirements that charities and other organisations running the Work Programme should not criticise the scheme.
Speaking to Third Sector at a Westminster event to inform the programme’s providers about the Merlin Standard, which governs the relationship between organisations running the programme, Grayling said the clauses were appropriate.
"A charity can’t deliver services to the Department for Work and Pensions and at the same time be doing things that bring the Work Programme into disrepute," he said. "If a private contractor acts in a way that damages the reputation of the Work Programme then they are in breach of contract because their job is to work with us. There is no reason why it would be different for a charity. We have a duty to protect the integrity of the Work Programme."
Grayling said, however, that there was "a world of difference" between criticising the programme in a way that might undermine confidence in it, and "saying you are having a tough time delivering it".
He said: "There is no attempt to muzzle the charity sector. We have got sensible clauses that prevent any subcontractor from talking in a way that brings the whole programme into disrepute, but that is not the same as saying they can’t raise any problems."
Asked whether the DWP would consider introducing payments for ‘soft’ outcomes such as improving people’s interview skills and confidence, Grayling said: "They’ve got people for two years, and they should be able to succeed in that time."
Today's event is one of four being held around England to launch the Merlin Standard and inform providers about how they will be assessed against its values. Each Work Programme prime provider will have to be assessed against the standard by June.
Speaking at the event, Grayling said he hoped the Work Programme’s payment-by-results model would be "a template that will be used in other parts of government."
He told private firms that were running the Work Programme that the Merlin Standard was set up to prevent prime contractors from mistreating smaller providers on the scheme, many of which are charities.
"Payment by results means we have to deal with the big guy first because they’re the ones with the financial muscle to deliver contracts of this scale," he said. "But that must not mean that the little guy is left out. If the big guys duff up the little guys, we will duff up the big guys."
He said, however, that the DWP could not be responsible for charities that had signed up to Work Programme contracts that they were unable to deliver. "If voluntary sector organisations do deals they can’t afford, I’m afraid that’s on their heads," he said. "If an organisation has done that, it needs to take a look in the mirror and learn some commercial tricks in negotiation. There is no reason why any voluntary sector group should be unable to afford to do the Work Programme."