by Anood Al-Samerai on 19 April, 2011
You may remember that the Labour budget planned to close 10 of the 13 volutnary sector day centres in our borough. Thanks to pressure from committed campaigners and the Liberal Democrat council group a last minute stay of execution was allowed. Labour said they would use this time to consult with the providers of these front line services. In recent weeks my colleague and Shadow Cabinet Member Councillor David Noakes, and I have been meeting with a number of groups and have many very moving conversations with the people who depend on these services.
It is really important to note that Labour do not have to make these particular cuts. They are putting money into the council’s reserves and contingency funds to spend in a few years’ time (when it will coincidentally be closer to local elections). They have made a cynical and shameful attempt to blame the government for their local choices despite the Liberal Democrats putting forward an alternative budget which would have saved these front line services. Every Labour councillor in the borough shamefully voted to cut day centre provision and I hope that residents will remind them of this and their responsibilities as elected responsibilities. The Liberal Democrat response to the consultation is below.
Liberal Democrat Council Group response to day services consultation
Thank you for agreeing at the last minute to continue funding day centres until August to allow time for a proper consultation to take place. As you know, the Liberal Democrat group had proposed a very simple budget amendment which would not have seen £30 million put into the council’s reserves and contingency funds over the next three years. Our alternative budget was approved by the Finance Director and would have protected front line services in your department. We remain extremely disappointed that Labour councillors did not vote for our amendment.
100% funding cut to voluntary sector day services is unfair and unnecessary
The only answer which your administration has given in this debate is to blame the government. However, you cannot tell people that the government cut is 100%. So it is completely wrong and unfair to cuts the funding to these voluntary sector groups by 100%. Surely an administration which talks about fairness should be spreading the cuts more evenly? We hope that you will look again at why it is necessary to cut these groups’ funding by 100% when the council’s has not been cut in this way.
The Liberal Democrat group’s specific suggestion for the voluntary sector day centres would have been to continue to fund them for this year and to work with them to make 25% savings next year. This could have been done by reducing the amount which the council is putting into reserves and contingency funds. We remain of the view that this would be the best option and hope that you will press your cabinet colleagues to look again at this suggestion. It is not too late to do this and the voluntary sector day centre providers we have spoken to in recent months all agree that this would be the best way forwards for them. They would be able to make 25% savings in a year’s time and survive. We are still not clear that you are committed to the survival of these groups. If you are, then a 25% cut in a year’s time would surely be the best solution.
One of the real difficulties which your administration has caused for these groups is to have worked with such unrealistic timescales. This is the issue which has been raised with us time and time again.
While the government has had to frontload savings because of the huge deficit the country faces, local councils do not have these debts and, therefore, do not have to front load. They can use reserves to help to spread the savings over several years. Even your ‘stay of execution’ until August has not given groups enough time to really look into how they can sustain their organisations in the long term.
Every group we have spoken to has asked for more time to secure their survival. They are willing to look at a number of options, some of which we have outlined below. However, all of these will require more time. The outcome of this consultation should, therefore, be to continue to fund these groups until the end of this financial year. Despite saying that you couldn’t, you were able to find the funds to do so until August and you would be able to do so beyond that if the political will existed.
A very real concern about this consultation process has been the lack of support which the council is offering to groups which provide services for some of our most vulnerable residents. The attitude in the last few months seems to have been: ‘We are going to cut your funding by 100%. If you can find a way of surviving, we’ll allow you to. If not, you’ll have to close’. This ‘sink or swim’ attitude is appalling and does a huge disservice to extremely vulnerable residents and the staff and volunteers who have worked over many years to establish and support thriving centres.
If the council is serious about supporting these groups in their efforts to continue it must provide support to the voluntary sector through genuine and helpful advice and support. We suggest that officers’ roles and work should be directed to be advocates for these groups and assist them with funding applications, alternative business models and other ideas for sustainability.
All the groups we have spoken to are extremely willing to look for alternative sources of funding from outside the council. However, this will take time and relates to the points about timescale made above. There is also an important point about the need for the council to continue to provide at least some funding to each group. Organisations such as the Golden Oldies and the Southwark Irish Pensioners actually receive relatively small amounts from the council (less than £100K). Even though this amount may be reduced, it would enormously help the organisations in making applications to other bodies. We have been told that most fundraising applications have to see some funding from the council as a condition of any other grants. Funding from the council gives groups legitimacy and shows that the council recognises the services which they provide to residents in the borough.
We, therefore, recommend that the council continues to provide each group with some funding to address this point.
Hubs and Spokes
Some groups are interested in looking at models with hubs and spokes. However, it is clear that this will not work for all groups. Geographical location is extremely important to many of the service users and having an established presence in a particular locality is often what makes them so important to the service users. Groups which wish to remain in their current locations must be given support from the council in order to do so.
We understand that personal budgets will provide some income, particularly to those groups which have substantial or critical FACS eligible service users. However, this will not solely provide enough income for any one group to survive and should not be seen as the ‘silver bullet’ in this situation. Groups have concerns about how they will administer this stream of income and how they will be able to remain impartial providers of advice. These are extremely important issues and should not be rushed through. Once again, allowing more time would solve a number of very real concerns.
The council must also recognise that personal budgets will be a less reliable source of income for groups and that some core council funding would still be necessary to provide them with the stability which they clearly need.
We are also troubled to hear that many service users are being reassessed over the telephone. This is not appropriate and the council must do this piece of work properly.
Many groups have recognised the need to increase their charges for particular services or activities. We have been very impressed with the groups’ willingness to turn their hands to making their models more sustainable. However, they are clear that their service users will not be able to afford very sudden substantial increases in costs. It is worth remembering that pensioners, particularly female pensioners, are some of the poorest members of our society and making them bear the full burden of increased charges would not be fair.
Council’s view of Voluntary Day Services Providers
There is a considerable strength of feeling that the council does not really understand or appreciate the work of these day centres. Your administration has continued to refer to them as luncheon clubs when they do so much more than this. Your consultation document calls them open access services, when in fact several are referral only services. You and your officers continue to talk about ‘innovation’ and ‘alternative models’, but seem to completely fail to recognise the strengths of the current providers and the excellent work which they carry out in our communities. A proper assessment of the benefits of these centres and the savings which they make for the council in terms of preventing isolation and malnutrition must be made before your administration proceeds with cutting 100% of their funding.
The effects of the council’s plan to cut 100% of funding to these groups will have a hugely disproportionate effect on ethnic minorities in Southwark. For example, the Cypriot community which comes from a culture of meeting and socialising will be devastated if their centre is forced to close. A full assessment of the effects on our minority communities must take place before your administration proceeds with this ill thought out decision.
We do hope that you will be able to fully consider the points which we have made above and agree to our recommendations. You seem convinced, from other correspondence, that the Liberal Democrat group is only concerned about this from a party political point of view. This is not the case. The discussions which we have held with extremely vulnerable residents over the past few months have been extremely moving and upsetting. It is not too late to change your decisions, to allow more time and a more reasonable outcome which will help the whole of our borough. We are, of course, happy to discuss any of the points which we have made in more detail.
Councillor Anood Al-Samerai, Councillor David Noakes and the Liberal Democrat council group
Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Bermondsey and Old Southwark