Focus: Policy and Politics - Reform employment service - Acevo

The chief executives body is arguing for a level playing field, writes Nathalie Thomas.

Acevo is urging the Government to make two-pronged reforms to Jobcentre Plus, allowing the voluntary sector to compete on a level footing with the private and public sectors under better contractual conditions.

"We believe Jobcentre Plus should become the job portal: the commissioning agent and the people who determine the benefit," said Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo. The chief executives body is proposing the removal of employment and training services from Jobcentre Plus in favour of contracting them out to external providers - including voluntary sector bodies.

The organisation argues that independent provision of schemes such as the New Deal for Disabled People by Tomorrow's People and the Shaw Trust is evidence of the sector's ability to provide better services with greater cost efficiency.

Acevo has presented its proposals, drawn up with the Employment and Related Services Association, to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the hope of influencing the forthcoming Government green paper on welfare reform.

The proposed reforms are based on the Australian model - the number of jobseekers placed in employment there rose by 70 per cent between 1999/2000 and 2004/05. Costs also fell by A$1.3bn during that period.

However, not everyone agrees with a shift towards the Australian system.

Dave Simmonds, director of the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, warned the Work and Pensions Committee that monopolies have developed in some areas, with one large provider edging out smaller competitors.

Bubb acknowledged this was a concern, but one that could be overcome with "intelligent commissioning". He added: "I wouldn't favour a great big bulk contract. It's about looking sensibly at the service areas you need and who can provide them."

Bubb also admitted these reforms could not be delivered without a change in the procurement process.

"Our members could only take on a much bigger role if the contracts were right," he said. "Most of our organisations struggle to manage the current contracting system. A big increase in scale would have to be accompanied by sensible contracting."

Research among Acevo members shows voluntary sector organisations contracted with Jobcentre Plus suffer because of one-year contracts, process-driven agreements, excessive bureaucracy and long delays in the renewal process.

The private sector gets contracts for two years or more.

Nick Aldridge, director of strategy and communications at Acevo, is working with the Department of Work and Pensions and the Home Office to improve contracting arrangements. In the case of Jobcentre Plus, however, Acevo admits reform may be gradual.

"We don't believe the big bang approach would necessarily help," said Bubb. "It's a question of a roll-out of contracting."

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