New research into the Work Programme, released today by the Third Sector Research Centre, casts further doubt on the quality of services being delivered, particularly to those furthest from the labour market.
The research, which involved interviews with Primes and providers, highlights that tier 2, ‘specialist’ providers, appear to be receiving no or very few referrals.
This raises concerns about what is happening to those in need of specialist provision.
The study notes that ‘gaming’ – including creaming off those who are closest to the labour market, and ‘parking’ those who are hardest to help – is endemic within the programme.
The research points to the overall lack of resource in the Programme and its structure and payment mechanisms, as the main reasons for this.
Many providers in the study saw parking hard to help clients as a ‘rational response to payment by results’.
The government has attempted to control creaming and parking in the Programme by introducing higher payments for harder to help clients.
But the research found no evidence as yet that these differential payments had incentivised providers to work with harder to help customers - in part because the categories did not correspond to the groups they perceived to be hardest to help.
The study, which looked at the experience of providers from the private, third and public sector, notes that third sector organisations have experienced some particular problems with the Programme, including risks around mission and reputation.
The structure of the Programme also disadvantages those who are not generic providers – affecting many third sector organisations that provide specialist support.
But sector was not the most important factor in an organisations experience of the Work Programme. Instead, their position in the supply chain was key.
Specialist, or tier 2, providers from all sectors have not fared well, and have experienced little involvement in delivery in practice.
James Rees, part of the TSRC team that conducted the research, said: "Despite positive government attempts to introduce payment incentives for harder to help groups, it appears that those who are furthest from the labour market or require specialist provision are not being catered for by the Work Programme in practice.
"It seems that reduced funding, coupled with a more competitive and commercial environment, may be undermining the success of the Programme. Interventions for many clients may be costly – but they may pay off in the long run."
James Allen, head of Public Services and Partnerships at NCVO, added: "This research echoes our experience that position in the supply chain is a very important factor in how a provider experiences the work programme. Smaller organisations are frequently exposed to disproportionate levels of risk.
"Charities can find this either challenging or simply a complete barrier to involvement.
"We share the researchers’ concerns that specialist providers are receiving a low number of referrals, and that harder-to-help service users are being ‘parked’.
"While we have seen examples of good practice by both prime and sub-contractors, there are still question marks over the quality of service that many people on the work programme actually get."