The Work Programme does not owe the voluntary sector a living, says ERSA chair

Matthew Lester, operations director at Papworth Trust & chair of ERSA

The Work Programme does not owe the voluntary sector a living, says ERSA chair4

Finance | Vibeka Mair | 22 Nov 2011

Matthew Lester, chair of the Employment Related Services Association, has little truck with charities that complain about the Work Programme.  Vibeka Mair reports.

Matthew Lester, operations director at the Papworth Trust, became chair of the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) earlier this year. His charity, which supports disabled people into employment, is a subcontractor on the biggest welfare-to-work contract the Work Programme, which is being run by the Department for Work and Pensions. He describes its involvement as “risky”, but adds that “most good things tend to be”.

The Work Programme has had a shaky 12 months. It’s been scrutinised closely by the commentators, including ERSA which most recently called on the government to take urgent action to clear the backlog of Work Capability Assessments that have built up.

Lester also says that tight timescales in the Programme meant that prime and sub-contractors did not have sufficient time to explore innovation and imaginative approaches.

Others have also criticised the lack of charities in the supply chain, but Lester is less sympathetic with these complaints. ERSA, which he co-founded in 2005, is sector-neutral. Its almost 100 members are 50 per cent charities, but it also includes public and private-sector suppliers.

Lester takes a non-sectorial approach to contract wins in welfare-to-work programmes and feels that charities need to recognise the difference between contracted work and charitable activities:

“I am part of the charity sector,” he says. “But some act like the world owes the voluntary sector a living because it is doing good work. Let’s not confuse doing good with performing well - as a contractor you need to perform to survive.”

“I am not supportive of those in the voluntary sector who whine and moan and think the world owes us a living. It’s a competitive world and if the state provides better and cheaper facilities through a commercial organisation than a voluntary one I don’t know why the taxpayer should buy from the voluntary sector."

Lester does concede that the voluntary sector offers something unique to the commercial sector, most importantly community engagement, and can deliver contracts extremely well. But he predicts other sectors could catch up.

“I predict that knowledge over time will end up being subsumed and lost in the commercial sector. I will be cheesed off but if it actually means that the commercial sector serves many people well then I’ve achieved my objects as a charity to ensure disabled people have equality.”

Dan Sumners
24 Nov 2011

Mr Lester's comments are predicated on the assumption that private companies win contracts because they perform better, which simply isn't the case. The not-for-profit sector delivers higher quality at lower cost, but, as government minsiters have acknowledged, there isn't a level playing field for small organisations in bidding for contracts. The commissioning process remains skewed in favour of large organisations that can spend lots of time on money on ensuring they are successful. So, unless he means by 'performing well' simply 'being able to win contracts', his implied criticism of the sector is not only groundless but wrong.

22 Nov 2011

I totally agree - at the end of the day everything that counts is benefit for end users. I don't agree that charities are great because they are great - plenty of them don't do a good job but this sector is so self-centred nobody cares about taxpayers and users anymore (well, most of them don't). Labour had put an awful lot of work to create The Great Employability Project out of the voluntary and community sector and everybody enthusiastically tapped into idea in return for a handful of grants and salaries. And now Tories are happily harvesting the seed by crushing whatever is left of independence through contracting. Commercial sector is at least clear about their motives.

Edward Murphy
22 Nov 2011

If ESRA members and vulture capitalists want to take public money to help the government sanction poor people off benefits that's up to them.Don't pretend this has anything to do with work and don't be surprised when charities chisel like anyone else.

Carl Allen
22 Nov 2011

Three things other sectors will not catch up with (but a black swan may arise)

1. Not-for-private-profit principle but the challenge generally remains of turning this into a competitive edge
2. The volunteer resource but the challenge arises of the treatment of volunteers
3. Last resort of the excluded but the private sector will in future increasingly devote CSR resources directly for excluded consumers. Much as with Gift Aid, this will become a tax benefit.


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