By Patrick Weir
In light of recent child sexual exploitation trials in Derby, Rochdale, Bristol, Oxford and Peterborough, cuts to council budgets for charities working in this area would appear reckless even in this austere climate. Yet this is a constant concern for the voluntary sector.
One charity has just been granted a year’s reprieve from the cuts, however. Derby-based Safe and Sound is a leading child sexual exploitation organisation that played a pivotal role in the city’s Operation Retriever in 2010. It resulted in a child abuse ring of 13 men receiving prison sentences of 18 months to 22 years and government praise for the charity.
“The city council has made the right decision [to grant us a reprieve], but the energy and work of victims and parents who made their voices heard to the authority was colossal,” explains Nicola Dalby, the charity’s acting chief executive. “And in terms of being given any reasons for potential or actual cuts, there were no discussions with the council.”
Dalby says the charity was shocked to be “suddenly presented with a consultation paper”. “We knew of course that the council had to make cuts, but we expected some heads-up at least, some dialogue. Professionally we were taken aback as we imagined there must be a process to be undertaken first.”
Dalby admits she still doesn’t understand the rationale. “But it meant we were at tipping point as the council should have asked us how exactly we could operate on reduced funding and formulate a strategy to do so.”
Since last April, Safe and Sound has worked with 155 young people who have been sexually exploited or are at risk of it, already their highest number since at least 2008-9. Had the funding been totally cut, Dalby doubts whether the organisation would have survived.
“It would have been devastating,” she says. “Our external partners, such as Children in Need and the National Lottery, would possibly have lost confidence in us if one of our major funders withdrew its grants.
“Council funding is key in this respect as it shows we are doing our job properly and so attracts other agencies. Without it the funding environment becomes more competitive and puts more pressure on outside agencies.”
The charity receives £84,800 from the council, which comprises nearly one fifth of its annual £500,000 budget. The consultation paper referred to “recommissioning” the service in order to save money, but Dalby still doesn’t know what this might entail. The council is unable to clarify whether it would continue to provide funding or put it out to open tender.
“I’m still unclear as to what this will look like, the process or timeframe,” Dalby says. “The council didn’t do any scoping (examining the consequences of cuts after April) and now we’re in February. How do you exit from working with vulnerable kids in two months? Where do kids go who are high risk and being exploited? The council’s attitude baffles me.”
As for what might happen in a year’s time and beyond, Dalby admits to being relatively confident. The charity is preparing a bid to get funding from the Child Sexual Exploitation Founders Alliance, where Safe and Sound would become a hub and support the development of services across more geographical areas.
“In an ideal world, to have one financial delivery process instead of a host of agencies would be fantastic. But we will always need external investment and we can’t replace all the council money in one or even two years.
“However, given our existing good work and reputation, I feel hopeful about our prospects of generating more income from external partners. “In terms of next year, it’s easier for us as we have the time to prepare for whether we receive statutory funding or go to open tender.”
Indeed, Dalby would eventually like to see Safe and Sound being part of a national network of specialised services, funded on a statutory and voluntary basis. “Working with partner groups in say, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Peterborough, and in areas where children are trafficked, would enable us to really open up the map. These are difficult times but I’m always optimistic.”
The council’s position
Councillor Martin Rawson, cabinet member for children and young people in Derby, defends the process, saying the consultation paper was given to the charity before talks were held.
“It would have been premature to discuss any cuts with them prior to presenting the consultation paper as we didn’t want to alarm them regarding possible cuts to our budget.”
“In an ideal world, essential charities such as Safe and Sound would not be facing cuts. But government cuts are so extreme that unfortunately they have to be considered.
“When we realised that the charity was so reliant on our money during our conversations with them we decided to continue funding it. The charity now has the time to generate other income from elsewhere.”