The Department for Work and Pensions has agreed to make a series of reforms to the Work Programme to improve engagement with voluntary sector organisations.
A report published by the DWP yesterday responds to recommendations from the Work Programme Building Best Practice Group, which includes voluntary organisations and contractors.
Most of the recommendations have been accepted, including increasing the length of the tendering period and implementing the Merlin Standard on expressions of interest, a code of conduct for contractors and subcontractors that deliver the programme on behalf of the government.
These measures are designed to ensure primary contractors have more time to work with voluntary organisations before they submit bids.
The report says that a key concern of the best practice group was the number of referrals to voluntary organisations in the supply chain. The group recommended that VCS providers should receive "guaranteed volumes, with a tolerance level on volumes provided by DWP, anything beyond which should incur a penalty".
DWP responded in the report: "The department partly accepts this recommendation, in principle, where it will consider the issue of projected volumes when developing future programmes. The department will not be looking at incurring penalties due to changing labour market conditions."
Nick Davies, public services manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, told Third Sector that changes to the tendering period were important for voluntary organisations.
He said it was difficult for organisations that did not have dedicated business teams to take part in complex negotiations in a short period of time, and contractors might not have the time to identify smaller providers to be part of the supply chain.
Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association, the trade association for the welfare-to-work industry, which was part of the best practice group, told Third Sector that the recommendation about guaranteed volumes was not in the original scope of the group. "The biggest problem is the number of referrals," she said. "If that drops off the edge of a cliff, it’s going to have a huge effect on the ability to run your business. If you’re a smaller organisation, that’s going to be particularly difficult to manage."
McHugh said referrals to the Work Programme were falling and it was unlikely there would be an increase before existing contracts end, which is expected to happen between 2015 and 2017.
"What we need to do is safeguard the capacity of those that are in the scheme," said McHugh. "We can’t increase the number of voluntary organisations; we need to protect the ones we’ve got."
The best practice group includes the contractors G4S, Serco and Pertemps, and the voluntary sector representatives the NCVO and the ERSA.