Editorial: Merlin Standard must be enforced in the Work Programme

It is becoming clear that the voluntary sector is not always getting a fair deal when it acts as programme sub-contractors, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

One of the most memorable phrases of the past week was "cream and park".It is, according to the NCVO chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington, being used to describe a syndrome emerging in the delivery of the government's Work Programme: the prime contractor, usually a private sector company, creams off the clients who are easier to place in work and parks the more problematic ones with the voluntary sector subcontractor. In a payment-by-results regime, it's not hard to see what the consequences are.

In a related development, we reported how A4e, one of the private sector primes in the programme, asked Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire to provide it with volunteers to help clients improve their CVs for job applications. The company's rather odd response was to say it was "investigating the allegations thoroughly". These are not allegations but documented facts that the company has not disputed, and it should move quickly to implement its policy of "working fairly with third sector partners". At the moment it appears to be seeking to exploit volunteers.

These two examples indicate that all is not well with aspects of the Work Programme that affect the voluntary sector, so it was reassuring to hear Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, acknowledge that things were not developing in the way ministers had expected. He told a round-table discussion with small charities that he was in almost daily contact with the employment minister, Chris Grayling, about the programme. "This is something new and it is going to take a little bit of time to make sure we get it right," he said.

One way forward, Sir Stuart said, was to showcase good practice in order to shame the bad; another was to draw up a set of Compact-style principles for relations between the voluntary and private sectors. But such an agreement already exists - it's called the Merlin Standard. The government should crack the whip with the private sector and make sure the standard is enforced - and strengthened where necessary.

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