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News analysis of voluntary sector involvement in children`s fund and sex abuse of people with learning difficulties

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may be advisable to print this document as it is long.

The
children’s fund was supposed to be an opportunity for the voluntary sector to
obtain funds and shape policy. But, once again, local authorities have taken the
lead. Sally Gillen asks whether the voluntary sector has been marginalized.

When
the government announced a £450 million children’s fund to tackle social
exclusion through community projects in November 2000, it said the projects
should be voluntary sector-led and duly set aside £70 million for a local
network, to be administered directly to the voluntary sector.

But,
significantly, the bulk of the money, £380 million, while intended for the
voluntary sector was given to council chief executives to administer. By April
of this year it became clear that it was local authorities and not voluntary
sector organisations that were chiefly responsible for drawing up proposals for
the fund. The government’s ambitions for the voluntary sector to lead the way had,
it seemed, come to nothing.

Was
anybody surprised? Certainly none of the delegates that attended the National
Association for Councils for Voluntary Services (NACVS) annual conference
earlier this month were. They asked a representative of the Children and Young
People’s Fund why the government had chosen, once again, to administer the
money to council chief executives. It was, they said, yet another example of
the government bypassing them and ensuring that councils were given control of
the purse strings. In his response, the government official blamed the decision
to administer the money to councils on the absence of a central point of
contact for the voluntary sector through which the money could be distributed.

The
NACVS also used its conference to unveil new research confirming the extent to
which the voluntary sector’s contribution to social inclusion work is largely
unfunded (News, page 7, 13 September).

The
NACVS’s research and the distribution of the children’s fund money both serve
to highlight the problems the voluntary sector faces when it comes to obtaining
funding for social inclusion work. But they also raise questions about the
understanding the government has of the relationship between the voluntary
sector and statutory bodies, and about the structure of the voluntary sector
itself. While the government’s desire to involve the voluntary sector in social
inclusion is undoubtedly genuine, it is easy to see its message as ultimately
unworkable.

As
a spokesperson for Urban Forum, an umbrella group for voluntary and community
groups with an interest in regeneration, points out: "Central government
may say that it wants the voluntary sector to be involved, but the mechanics of
funding benefit local authorities. The voluntary sector just doesn’t have the
resources to work alongside local authorities."

Gillian
Pugh, chief executive of children’s charity the Coram Family, agrees: "The
mechanisms in local authorities don’t work well for the voluntary sector."

But
Pugh warns voluntary agencies against stretching themselves beyond their means.
"It’s very unhelpful to bypass councils’ involvement," she says.
"The voluntary sector cannot do it on their own. The problem is the
government thinks the voluntary sector can deliver more than it can. The notion
of partnership is good, but it will be very difficult to make it work. We need
to ensure that the voluntary sector is involved in the planning and delivery of
services so they are not in the position of competing for funds."

Lack
of resources has long been a major barrier to voluntary sector organisations
accessing funds. Siobhan Downes, of the newly-created Brent Association for
Voluntary Action, says: "Putting together bids for money is very difficult
and time consuming. We just don’t have the resources."

Urban
Forum’s spokesperson adds: "There is a traditional problem in the
voluntary sector in terms of resources. People need expertise in filling out
forms. Identifying funding sources is also a problem. We constantly hear from
community groups that they don’t have the time to research funding groups in
their area."

But
even where the government has specifically targeted the voluntary sector, as
with the children’s fund, it is clear that the structure of the sector does not
make it easy for money to be administered directly.

Helen
Bush, acting head of policy at the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations, admits: "There is a gap between what the government wants
from the sector and the infrastructure that exists." But she is reluctant
to see the structure changed, suggesting instead that the government should do
much more to inform the sector about what funds are available, perhaps via a
one-stop shop-type website.

With
the emphasis on partnership heralded as the key to delivering social inclusion
it has become clear that the voluntary sector needs assistance in participating
in partnerships. The government has responded with the creation of the £36
million Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) to help the voluntary sector become
involved in local strategic partnerships (LSPs). LSPs, which are made up of
people from public services, local businesses, the voluntary sector and
residents, are being established to deliver the government’s Neighbourhood
Renewal Strategy locally. The strategy, launched in January 2001, aims to
ensure that within the next 10 to 20 years no one will be seriously
disadvantaged by where they live. The CEF money will be administered via
regional government offices to England’s 88 most deprived areas.

Welcoming
the CEF, NCVO policy officer Sally Cooke says: "It’s great that it exists
because it shows the government recognises that the sector needs funds to be
involved in local strategic partnerships. But there are major problems with the
timing and the expectations on the voluntary sector."

She
adds: "The CEF for this year still hasn’t been released because the
decision over which organisations should administer the fund is still being
made."

A
spokesperson for the government’s Active Community Unit, which helps community
organisations to strengthen their partnerships with government, says: "The
CEF money is to be used to form community networks, which will work with
government offices. The money will belong completely to the voluntary sector.
We’re about to issue guidance on community chests, which is a £50 million fund
over three years and is available for the 88 Community Empowerment Fund areas.
This will mean the voluntary sector will have direct access to funding as it
will be administered directly to the voluntary sector. It won’t go through
local authorities."

But
there are already indications that government advice on the CEF has not been
particularly useful to the sector. Downes says Brent Association for Voluntary
Action has already missed out on the opportunity to influence Brent Council’s
spending of its £10,000 share of the neighbourhood renewal fund for this year
simply because they weren’t ready for it. Downes explains: "We didn’t
realise the impact of local strategic partnerships until early this summer. The
information that has come out has been very piecemeal. We haven’t had a huge
amount of time to get things ready and it’s very difficult trying to get groups
together when they are so busy. There are 100 groups involved at the moment and
about 1,000 groups in Brent."

But
even with the CEF, Cooke is doubtful that there will ever truly be a level
playing field. "It’ll always be difficult for them to be equal
partners," she says. "Local authorities will be held responsible for
the services that are delivered. But it is great to see the voluntary sector
have a place at the table."

Whether
the fund will succeed in establishing an infrastructure that enables the
government to channel money directly into the voluntary sector beyond its
three-year life span is a question no one is prepared to answer. Cooke says
cautiously that its success will vary from area to area and hinges on how well
the statutory bodies work with the voluntary sector.

The
success of the CEF will certainly test the voluntary sector’s mettle as well.
It is envisaged that a voluntary organisation will be chosen by the rest of the
sector to administer the fund. This set-up promises to be one of the most
contentious parts of the CEF. Urban Forum’s spokesperson says: "There are
bound to be teething troubles with the CEF when it comes to deciding which
groups administers the fund because if it can’t be agreed within the sector,
the government office will step in and nominate an organisation. But it will be
the first time the voluntary sector is taking charge."

In
the meantime, it must be remembered that the CEF is only for 88 areas and may
not necessarily prove a solution to general funding problems.

As
NACVS’s director Lis Pritchard points out: "This is not general
infrastructure funding. It has a very specific purpose, which is to set up
community networks in just 88 areas. There remains the problem that the vast
majority of councils for voluntary services tell us that they do not receive
the £85,000 funding they are they are supposed to get from local authorities.

"Last
year, Scotland had its funding doubled. Also Scotland and Wales receive central
funding. We’re not necessarily saying that we want to be funded centrally, but
we would like the government to ensure that local authorities do provide the
funding."

——————————————————–

Law changes needed

Sarah
Wellard reports on a call for a change in the law to protect people with
learning difficulties from sexual abuse.

This
week the learning difficulty charity Mencap, together with learning difficulty
support organisations Respond and Voice UK, published a report highlighting the
problem of sexual abuse of people with learning difficulties.1 The
charities want the law changed to increase the protection for these vulnerable people,
and to make it easier to convict perpetrators.

People
with learning difficulties may be vulnerable to sexual abuse because they often
lack power within relationships and their impairment may mean they fail to anticipate
potentially abusive situations or to understand that abuse has occurred.

The
report claims that the problem is widespread with as many as 1,400 new cases
each year. Yet only around 6 per cent of abusers are prosecuted.

Nicola
Harney, a partner at the legal firm Stewarts who specialises in compensation
claims on behalf of people who have suffered abuse, explains that there have
been few successful criminal prosecutions.

"It’s
very rare for the word of the victim to be accepted against the perpetrator’s
without the testimony of another non-disabled adult or compelling forensic
evidence," she explains. "Most of my clients are making their claims
on the back of an investigation, where the Crown Prosecution Service has said
there is insufficient evidence to proceed. Civil cases carry a lower burden of
proof so victims can still get compensation, but the perpetrator isn’t sent to
prison."

In
1998, the government set up a review body to examine the law on sex offences.
Organisations for people with learning difficulties are represented on the
reference group. Although there is a consensus that law reform is needed, the
Home Office is still considering how and whether to act.

However,
adults with learning difficulties do look set to get a fairer deal under the
Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. The act, introduced after Community
Care’s
A Fair Hearing: Justice for People with Learning Difficulties
campaign, includes measures to make it easier for vulnerable people to give
evidence in court. People with learning difficulties may be allowed to give
evidence through an independent intermediary who can interpret what they have
said. They will also be able to use screens or video links to avoid having to
face their abuser.

Michelle
McCarthy, senior lecturer in learning difficulties at Kent University, says the
changes look good on paper, but warns that they will only work if judges take
them on board. "It depends very much on the attitude of judges," she
explains. "It’s not going to be terribly helpful if a judge says a person
can’t have these rights."

Another
important change that should go some way towards protecting vulnerable adults
is the introduction of a new national framework for joint working between
social services, police, health and voluntary organisations.2 By the
end of October, directors of social services will be expected to have
implemented multi-agency procedures for dealing with incidents of abuse.

But
campaigners believe further changes in the law are vital if more convictions are
to be secured. Mencap says that it is too easy for perpetrators to evade
conviction by arguing that the victim consented to sex. "A lot of abuse is
pure and simple rape," a spokesperson argues. "Even with non-disabled
people you get very few convictions because rape hinges on the issue of
consent."

Because
the CPS knows how hard it is to secure a conviction for rape, they reduce the
charge to the lesser one of "sex with a mental defective" – as it is
demeaningly termed under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. But this only carries a
maximum sentence of two years.

Mencap
believes people with severe learning difficulties should be given similar legal
protection to children. This would make it an offence for anyone to have sex
with a person who is deemed unable to consent to sex. The new offence should
carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. They also want sex between care
staff and their clients made to be made illegal.

Whether
such moves would risk criminalising consensual sexual activity or infringing on
the rights of people with learning difficulties are issues that cannot be
ignored. But Mencap’s spokesperson argues that failure to act could mean
failure to protect. "We believe passionately in the right of people to
engage in sexual activity," he says. "But the responsible approach is
to protect vulnerable people from abusers who know exactly what they’re
doing."

1
Mencap, Respond and Voice UK, Behind Closed Doors, Preventing Sexual Abuse
Against Adults with a Learning Disability
, Mencap, September 2001.

2
Department of Health, No Secrets: Guidance on Developing and Implementing
Multi-agency Policies and Procedures to Protect Vulnerable Adults from Abuse
,
DoH, March 2000.

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