Charities delivering the government’s flagship welfare-to-work scheme, the Work Programme, have mixed feelings about the clauses in some contracts that they must not attract "adverse publicity" to the Department for Work and Pensions and must let the department approve their communications with the media.
Third Sector asked senior staff at eight charities that are delivering the Work Programme what they thought about the terms. For some, the clauses are a concern, calling into question the long-standing principle that charities must be independent and free to criticise the government.
"I have heard charities saying they feel they are forbidden from criticising the Work Programme," says a departmental director at a charity involved with the scheme. "The contract says you shouldn’t say anything about the Work Programme. Like a lot of things in these contracts, it is so master-and-servant that if you really analysed it you wouldn’t sign up to it."
A manager at another charity delivering the scheme says that, having organised a piece of good publicity about its Work Programme services, the charity was told by its prime contractor that it should have done this through the company’s press department. "I can understand why they do this, but we do feel that our hands are tied a little," the manager says.
Others, however, say the contract should not be interpreted too literally. Matthew Lester, director of operations at disability charity the Papworth Trust, says: "We are almost horizontally sanguine about this, and we certainly don’t feel we have compromised our independence by signing up to the contract.
"If there was a problem that we wanted to speak up about, we would have to recognise that one of the costs of providing a service is that you haven’t got carte blanche to just say whatever you want, however you want.
"We would do the respectful and courteous thing by speaking to the prime contractor and the department first, and trying to resolve the problem in that way. If we wanted to speak out more widely we would have to decide how to articulate that. But if there was something compelling that we felt we had to say, we would say it. The DWP would look churlish if it put a shot across our bows for that."
Another charity worker has a more defiant take on the contract. "We ended up agreeing to the terms thinking that we would just interpret them in our own way," she says. "The clauses are so vague that a lawyer could tear them apart if it came to it. It is simply not reasonable to say a charity can’t issue any public statement about the Work Programme without approval."
The clauses do not impose blanket restrictions on all Work Programme providers: one of the eight charities said the clauses were not in its contracts, and two said they had spoken out publicly about problems with the Work Programme and had not been criticised by their prime contractors or the department for doing so.
In a statement, the Careers Development Group, one of two charities working as a prime contractor on the programme, says that a balance should be found when it came to talking to the press about the scheme. "The government is sensible enough to recognise there will be occasions when a third sector organisation will want to speak out on behalf of its beneficiaries.
"This responsibility cuts both ways, however, and there has to be a balance. A constant stream of public criticism of the Work Programme, for example, about the current lack of data being published on its progress, will only serve to undermine the scheme. That is not in the interests of the people charities such as CDG are there to serve."
Some, however, are worried that the restrictions in the contracts could become a bigger problem in future. A service director at one charity says: "For us, there is no way that a contract for delivery would stop us campaigning or having a public view on the Work Programme, but the clause will be more of a problem for charities that are more financially reliant on their Work Programme contracts than we are.
"At the moment, charities are focusing on trying to make it work. I expect that in six or 12 months’ time, more will be thinking about pulling out of the programme unless major changes are made, because they won’t be able to afford to run it at a loss. That’s when these press provisions could start to be a real problem."