Kevin Curley: Iain Duncan Smith has betrayed the smaller charities he once championed

It's time for him to review the Work Programme in line with the principles of his Centre for Social Justice, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

So many words have been written about the government's wretched, failing Work Programme. But it isn't Emma Harrison's pounds dividend that bothers me most. Nor is it the alleged fraud and misrepresentation of achievements by one private sector prime contractor. Nor even the mistreatment by primes of local charities - what the recent National Audit Office report called "treating subcontractors unfairly". No, it's Iain Duncan Smith's betrayal of small charities and local community groups that really grieves me.

In 2004, Duncan Smith set up the Centre for Social Justice. He chaired it until 2010, when he became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and he remains closely associated with it. Through its awards scheme, the centre celebrates grass-roots charities. Every year since 2004, grants of £10,000 have been awarded to six charities and voluntary organisations that display innovation in addressing the causes of poverty. Awards have gone to charities such as SOS Gangs in south London and Young Disciples in Birmingham for helping young people turn away from street gangs. The Centre for Social Justice has helped to shape the Conservative Party's new understanding of the value of local voluntary action.

At every awards event, Duncan Smith talks with genuine enthusiasm about the great things local charities can achieve. Yet instead of building on the success of these same charities, he introduced the monolithic Work Programme with contracts so big that only private sector companies could win them and subcontracting arrangements that excluded many local charities with substantial experience in this area.

Generally, local charities that support and train unemployed people were either unable to meet prime contractors' requirements or chose not to accept the terms. Those that decided to join 'supply chains' now find themselves struggling with payment by results, involving narrow definitions of a successful 'outcome' for an unemployed person and long waits for the money they need to run their services. In February Nick Harvey, MP for North Devon, challenged the DWP over payment by results, pointing out that it was making participation in the Work Programme impossible for the charity Westward Pathfinder in his constituency. The DWP's dismissive answer to his criticism tells us all we need to know about its contempt for the local voluntary sector: "DWP holds contracts with prime providers. We do not determine how they select subcontractors. We have worked with the welfare-to-work industry to promote excellence in supply chain management."

How has Duncan Smith drifted so far away from his understanding of small local charities? It's time for him to review the programme. The successful local charities whose work his centre recognises and rewards must be placed at the heart of a new programme for getting people back into work.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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