The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is considering drawing up a set of standards for private firms and charities to follow when they are working together to deliver public services through initiatives such as the Work Programme.
Speaking yesterday at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering in Westminster, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said the Work Programme was continuing to pose problems for the voluntary sector groups that were delivering it.
"It is raising a number of issues that are problematic," he said. "One is a phenomenon described as ‘cream and park’, in which private firms cream off the easier clients and park the rest with voluntary organisations."
He said a counterpart for the Compact – a set of principles that govern the relationship between charities and central and local government – should be considered in the context of charities and private firms.
"There is no Compact in the relationship between charities and private sector contractors," he said. "The Merlin standard, which the government has introduced to perform this function, is often not being used appropriately. The NCVO will want to think about this."
He said there were some examples of good practice among private firms delivering Work Programme contracts with third sector subcontractors. "Exposing examples of things being done well is important so that other providers are shamed into doing it well too," he said.
Etherington said charities were deciding not to criticise government policies for fear of losing their funding.
"I suspect there is a level of self-censorship going on," he said. "It is subtle and you cannot grasp it because nobody will admit to it happening, but charities fear losing their government contracts."
Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, also spoke at the meeting, set up to discuss charities and independence.
Asked what she would like the review of the Charities Act 2006 to consider in the context of charities’ independence, she said that Scottish legislation made it clear charities could not be subject to ministerial or crown control.
In practice, she said, this meant that non-departmental public bodies could not be charities in Scotland, unlike in England and Wales. "If having this phrase written into the legislation appeals in Scotland, then what are the arguments against having it in England and Wales?" she asked.
Leather also told the meeting that charities had a chance to express their "collective values" by refusing to deliver public services if the government did not provide enough funding to allow those services to be of top quality.
"If it is clear in 10 years that charities won’t deliver public services because the quality is low, but the private sector will, that would say something about the sector," she said. "There is an opportunity for the sector to express its collective values."