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Why Housing Associations have vital role in Work Programme success

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James Walsh tells delegates at Welfare to Work conference in Birmingham.

Speaking at the UK Welfare to Work (W2W) conference yesterday, Bromford's Employment and Enterprise manager, James Walsh, stressed the vital role Housing Associations play in making the Work Programme work.

Walsh passionately described how only 18 months ago Bromford had to lobby prime contractors to prove their Work Programme credentials, without a great deal of take-up at the time. Yet on the Programme's first anniversary, HAs were described as pivotal to its success by Lord Freud. The low attendance from social housing providers show that this message is still sinking in but the primes and subs appear to be more attuned to the added benefits they can get from having social housing providers in their supply chains.

Speaking to the Birmingham audience, Walsh talked about the 60% of Work Programme customers who live in social housing and the unique relationship Housing Associations have with customers. He claims it is this relationship that's the key to success, saying: "We have a trusting relationship with customers. We go to their homes, we sit on their sofas and take a client-centred approach where we don't just look at the black and white of being in or out of work; we set interim milestones that aim to overcome personal barriers to work." Charlotte Mills who has recently completed Bromford's O4E programme and secured a two-year apprenticeship also presented on how the scheme has changed her life, going from being homeless two years ago to an apprentice skills advisor helping others on their journey.

He added that Housing Associations have the infrastructure and relationships with specialist providers to deal with major issues such as drug and alcohol dependency, convictions, low skills and mental health. This support is what helps more customers get work-ready, in itself an achievement and the main requirement for many private sector employers. This was echoed by Karen Walker from Greggs at the W2W convention.

Housing Associations also have the ongoing relationship with customers that can measure where they are over their two-year work programme journey which is key to sustainability payments on the Work Programme, something that's often difficult to track for other providers. Bromford now has the technology to assist customers track and map their own sustainability through the Connect app and providers were very keen to hear more on how they can utilise the service.

Controversially Bromford's Walsh stressed that there is some poor practice in the Work Programme with some providers from the third sector having services used by some contractors who haven't added them to the supply chain or negotiated a payment. Even in housing, contractors are clearly signposting customers to specific work clubs for support and yet not contributing anything towards the service cost. This point was discussed at the W2W convention with the relevant contractor and will see the start of a progressive contract discussion.

Walsh was clear that choice should be introduced in the Programme. Customers could and should be able to choose the support that best suits their needs and that provider has a call off provision that's a unit cost per person. It should also be made easier for smaller providers to be supported in supply chain agreements and meet the tough security and compliance issues.

Yes the work programme has had a tough first year in a tough economic climate, but as Chris Grayling said, we will not tolerate constant under performance and the recession is not a get out clause for a renegotiation. He commended Bromford for taking the approach we have and encouraged any prime and sub to do more with social housing providers as they can offer so much in terms of employment and procurement and specialism.

The Welfare to Work convention is an annual event hosted at Birmingham's ICC by The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. Key speakers this year included Chris Grayling, Minister of State for Employment and Liam Byre, Shadow Secretary of State for Employment.