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Openness and transparency are a long way off

At the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference yesterday, its chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington called for greater transparency about the Work Programme.

“It is appalling that voluntary sector organisations are being gagged,” he said, referring to the clauses in some Work Programme contracts that say organisations will “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity”  to the Department for Work and Pensions.

But if recent experience is anything to go by, openness and transparency are a long way off.

When it became clear last week that the charity Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change had pulled out of the programme, the charity said it could not make any comments beyond a statement that had been agreed by Prospects, the charity’s prime contractor, and the DWP.

“In Cornwall, CN4C has decided to withdraw from the supply chain in order to focus on its other successful contracts, delivering quality services to the most disadvantaged communities in Cornwall,” the statement said.

The parties involved would be naïve to think that any informed observer would accept this explanation. An NCVO report published in January indicated that more than half of the charities delivering the Work Programme said their prime contractor had not protected them from financial risk, as they are required to do.

It also warned that the scheme, which is run on a payment-by-results basis, could threaten the sustainability of many of the charities involved.

We don’t know, of course, whether these issues were at play in the case of Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change.

But Etherington’s point yesterday was that if charities cannot share their experiences, they will not learn important lessons from those in similar situations. If the charity could speak out, it might issue a warning to others that could prevent them from encountering the problems it has run into.

From a government that repeats its commitment to transparency, this sort of silencing is not just insulting, but damaging.