If the government's Work Programme had been introduced at a time when the economy was expanding and the jobs market was on the rise, we would no doubt be hearing less about its shortcomings. As it is, the harsh light of a faltering economy and rising unemployment seems to throw its every defect into stark relief, and the more we see, the worse it seems to get.
Take the last two reports published about it: a survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations revealed that a majority of third sector providers in the programme, who are mostly subcontractors, feel that they are not being properly protected from risk by the prime contractors. This runs against the requirements of the Merlin Standard, the code of practice drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions. The survey also shows that the third sector providers are not satisfied with the level of referrals they are receiving: in a payment-by-results regime, the NCVO points out that this is potentially a threat to their financial viability.
Then came the report of the National Audit Office, which concluded (in more diplomatic language than what follows) that the programme had been introduced in a tearing hurry with unrealistic targets, and involved wasting £63m to get out of contracts signed under the previous government's Welfare to Work scheme. The report warned that payment by results might lead to the targeting of easy-to-reach people, reductions in service levels or the unfair treatment of subcontractors.
It's beginning to feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. No doubt there is good work being done by charities and others in getting hard-to-place people back to work. But at the moment, it is overshadowed by the shortcomings of the programme and the growing fears that it will prove to be a millstone round the neck of some sector participants. While the job market remains depressed, the payment-by-results regime will be the biggest threat to their survival.