How the opposition homed in on criticism and declared there was "a crisis"
Last week's annual conference of the Employment Related Services Association, which represents organisations providing welfare-to-work services, was a prime opportunity for the government to defend the Work Programme against a steady flow of criticism.
Chris Grayling, the employment minister, was booked as the keynote speaker and was backed by Alan Cave, his director of contracted services at the Department for Work and Pensions, who was primed to give up-to-date facts and figures on the programme.
In the event, the government did not get a free run: the shadow charities minister, Gareth Thomas, and Grayling's shadow, Stephen Timms, took the opportunity to make the most of the government's difficulties by organising a rival event about the programme on the same day.
While Grayling paid glowing tributes to the programme and described the criticism as "mumblings and mutterings", Thomas and Timms claimed there was a "growing crisis" and provided a platform for charities to repeat their reservations about the programme and even say they might pull out of it.
The result was that the government's hope for some progress was dashed by a win on points for Labour, and the programme - a testing ground for the government's declared aim of ensuring a fair deal for the voluntary sector in the opening up of public services - looked as fuzzy and divisive as ever.
The sense of division was evident to some extent at the ERSA conference as well as the Labour event. Eleven of the 12 exhibitors were private companies and the only charity exhibitor was Citizens Advice. The impression that the welfare-to-work industry was dominated by the private sector was reinforced by conversations with delegates, one of whom said Grayling was in denial if he thought all was working well and charities were getting a fair deal.
As well as a sense of 'them and us' between the private and voluntary sectors, there also appeared to be tensions within the voluntary sector. It was clear that some charities wanted to avoid the phrase 'not for profit' and present themselves as dynamic, businesslike organisations. One speaker championed the phrase "a business brain with a charitable heart".
The tensions broke into the open after the morning speeches, when Mike Harvey, business development director of the third sector bidding consortium 3SC, accused both sectors of losing sight of the needs of customers as they "squabbled like children" over who should be paid to provide the services. The moment was defused by the call to lunch.
In the afternoon, the conference received some updated figures from Cave, who said about 50 per cent of organisations delivering the welfare-to-work programme were voluntary, which exceeded expectations. They had dealt with about 20 per cent of referrals, he said.
But he said it was too early to give a breakdown of the value of the contracts according to sector. This all-important figure, when it emerges, will be a vital factor in the continuing argument about whether the sector is getting a fair crack of the whip.