Sarah Baalham: why voluntary organisations will have to ask themselves whether their main concern is their own survival or the best interests of their clients

In common with many other local authorities, Suffolk is looking closely at the services it commissions from the ­voluntary sector.

Little Acorns, a day centre funded to provide a “moving on” type service for younger people with physical disabilities or mental health issues had had the same group of clients for many years. The clients felt safe and enjoyed attending the centre, but the original idea that they would develop skills and where possible move into work seemed to have been lost.

Each client’s need for a day service was reviewed, and for many their attendance was reduced. Others were asked to make their own transport arrangements – including one client who had, without telling us, acquired their own car since their initial assessment, but was still travelling to Little Acorns in a taxi funded by the local authority!

Assessors spent considerable time and effort exploring and discussing options with each client whose service changed, and most clients ended up with a care plan that amounted to the same hours of day service each week. The difference was that the new care plan was more focused on identifying and achieving goals for each person.

At their review, most clients were happy with the proposed changes, although understandably anxious about accessing new and different services. However, in the weeks that followed I started to receive a small avalanche of complaints from Little Acorns’ clients, their families and MPs.

Clients started saying that they didn’t want to change, that the service they had been receiving met their needs where the new service wouldn’t, and that they had been bullied into agreeing the changes. I soon realised that many of the letters were worded similarly. I contacted several of our service managers, who all told me that the voluntary organisation that ran Little Acorns was orchestrating a campaign against the changes.

Sadly, the result for many service users and family carers was that, instead of feeling able to change and move on, the future held nothing but fear and unease.

In my spare time I am a committee member of several voluntary organisations. So I know what it is like to feel that your independence is under threat. Voluntary organisations are uniquely placed to respond to the needs of their service users in flexible and imaginative ways. However, no organisation has an automatic right to receive statutory funding, and those that do receive it must expect the local authority to check that the projects it funds meet the needs it has identified.

Ultimately, voluntary organisations will have to ask themselves whether their main concern is their own survival or the best interests of their clients, which may not always be the same thing.

Sarah Baalham is customer care manager, Suffolk Council

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