The government has missed an opportunity to involve user-led organisations in supporting disabled people into employment through its new Work Programme, it has been claimed.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has announced the 18 private sector companies and just two voluntary organisations it has selected to be its lead “prime” contractors in delivering the programme across England, Scotland and Wales.
The DWP said 289 charities would be involved as sub-contractors, working for the 18 “primes”, and described this as a “massive boost for the Big Society”.
It has so far only been able to name 24 of these charities, including Action for Blind People, Mencap, Papworth Trust and Disability Works (a consortium which boasts of a combined annual turnover of £688 million and includes several large disability charities, such as Scope, Mind and Leonard Cheshire Disability).
But it is unclear so far how many disabled people’s organisations are among the 289 charities.
The DWP said the Work Programme, which is set to begin in June, would provide “a completely new approach to supporting people back to work”, giving the 18 prime contractors “freedom to design support that actually works, rather than having to do what’s prescribed by Whitehall”.
Contractors will be paid by results, with more money for those who find jobs for the “hardest to help”, and the government expecting about a million people to receive support in the programme’s first two years.
But Tracey Proudlock, a human resources and recruitment expert who runs her own disability and access consultancy, said it was “sad that so few user-led organisations appear to be involved with the Work Programme”.
She said: “User-led groups can get into communities very effectively and I think this is a missed opportunity because more user-led involvement would have brought that engagement.”
She said she accepted that few disabled people’s organisations would have had the resources to put together the complex bids necessary to win contracts.
But she added: “These contracts would have secured funding for user-led organisations for up to seven years, and given them financial confidence at a time when many of them are struggling.”
Stephen Dering, co-director of Argonaut Community Enterprises, which he set up with another deaf social entrepreneur last year to help long-term unemployed deaf and disabled people into work, said he was pleased with how the government had allocated the prime contracts. Argonaut is in discussions with several “primes” over becoming a subcontractor.
Dering said companies like Ingeus, A4e and Serco that have treated sub-contractors well in the past appear to have been rewarded by the government with new contracts.
He said there would be “good opportunities” under the Work Programme for long-term unemployed disabled people found eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), but suggested there could be problems with those found ineligible for ESA and forced to claim jobseeker’s allowance, where there would be lower fees paid to contractors.
Among the big charities that lost out in the bidding process was Shaw Trust, which joined a consortium that included Atos Origin, the much-criticised company responsible for carrying out work capability assessments for the government.
The consortium was unsuccessful in all of its “six or seven” bids for prime contracts, although Shaw Trust itself has secured some sub-contracting work.
A Shaw Trust spokeswoman claimed the charity had been “comfortable” with the idea of working alongside Atos – which she praised for its “capacity, flexibility and professionalism” – despite widespread anger among disabled people at the way it carries out the assessments, which test eligibility for ESA.
She said it was too early to say what impact the failure to secure any prime contracts would have on Shaw Trust.