Charities and other groups delivering the Work Programme have signed up to a contract that says they will "not do anything which may attract adverse publicity" for the Department for Work and Pensions, Third Sector has learned.
The terms of the agreement also say prime contractors "shall not make any press announcements or publicise the contract in any way" without approval from the department.
The provisions came to light after an employee at a charity delivering the Work Programme, who had been in contact with Third Sector, said she could not speak about the programme because she had learned of the restrictions in the contract.
The provisions are in the contracts between the DWP and the Work Programme’s prime providers. Third Sector understands that the adverse publicity clause has been passed to some charity subcontractors through a condition added by some primes that all terms in their own contracts with the DWP also apply to groups in their supply chains.
The contracts between the DWP and the prime contractors also contain a requirement that primes take steps to ensure their subcontractors do not make press announcements or publicise the contract without the department’s approval.
The DWP said in a statement that the provisions were "a sensible approach for providers and the department when dealing with a wide and varied media".
A spokeswoman said the department did not adopt a heavy-handed approach and had not censured charities that had publicly criticised the Work Programme.
Julian Blake, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, which specialises in private, public and third sector contracts, said: "Contracts often have a publicity clause, but they don’t always go as far as to say you should not say anything that will produce adverse publicity. This seems like it has gone a bit further, and it does cross the line about what the right balance should be in principle.
"I’m sure it has the effect of making charities think they should avoid saying anything critical, but I think that in practice it would still be acceptable for charities to criticise the government as long as this was based on evidence."
Ralph Michell, director of policy at chief executives’ body Acevo, said it was not clear how many charities had been deterred by the clauses in the contract. He said, however, that they should be free to criticise the Work Programme publicly if they thought this was reasonable and in the best interests of their beneficiaries.
"The principle that charities should be able to bite the hand that feeds them is completely sacrosanct," he said. "Whatever is in the contract, charities have a moral duty to speak out on behalf of those they serve."
After seeing the provisions, the Charity Commission issued a statement that said: "Independence is one of the most crucial characteristics of charity. Any charity that feels a provision in a contract restricting its discretion is not in its interests should not agree to those terms."
Asked about the provisions, charities delivering the Work Programme gave mixed reactions, with one saying it ignored them because it was confident that if it was challenged over doing so, a lawyer could "tear the whole clause apart".