16 Days: asset stripping the women’s sector in the UK

The quality of service in the independent women's sector is no guarantee against the future as the British government continues its assault on specialist women’s services protecting women from violence. 

Rahila Gupta
30 November 2015

It is tragic that we must mark the 16 Day period of activism and awareness of violence against women in 2015 with the recognition that the very sector that provides services to these women is looking emaciated, deprived of nourishment by a government which drones on about its commitment to ending violence.

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Sun canvas painted by women exiting prostitution, Eaves project. Photo: Eaves 

Eaves, one of these specialist providers and a highly respected organisation, closed its doors in October after nearly 40 years in operation.  Coming soon after the death of its charismatic champion and chief executive, Denise Marshall, led some to believe that the two events were connected.  However, the writing had been on the wall for some time; but it had been on the wall in the way that it is for many voluntary sector organisations where funding is always precarious, closure or massive retrenchment is always imminent and then by some miracle, the worst is deferred. I use the word ‘miracle’ because there are no lessons to be learnt to consolidate the future of the organisation because the solution to funding problems in one year cannot necessarily be replicated the following year.

Quality of service is no guarantee against the future.

I know this situation intimately from my involvement with the sector, having been on the management committee of Southall Black Sisters for over 25 years. It is also a miracle that services of such high standards continue to be provided despite the impact of insecurity on the morale of staff and service users.  The fact that the most vulnerable in our society are catered for in such an insecure and underfunded environment should be a shocking state of affairs in a wealthy, developed nation but it has become so ingrained in the DNA of this sector that people hardly remark on it.

Voluntary sector organisations, especially smaller, specialist ones, have been shutting down or being forced to merge with larger organisations.  This trend can be partly explained by the paradox at the heart of neo-liberalism: while claiming to enhance competition, its net effect is to shatter the competition into fragments which cannot exist independently and are forced to coalesce into monopolies.

Heather Harvey, Research and Development manager for Eaves, believes the decline began in 2010 with the cuts under the Coalition government.  They were seriously knocked back in 2011 when their POPPY project supporting women who had been trafficked into prostitution or labour lost a £3.7m Home Office contract to the Salvation Army.  By 2012, their annual turnover had dropped from £6m to £1.5m but their overhead costs, including high rents, remained the same. There had been no services available for trafficked women in the UK before Denise Marshall identified this group of women as falling through the net and persuaded her board to set up services for them. In December 2001, they provided accommodation for their very first woman who had featured on a Channel 4 television documentary on trafficking and who was in such dire need of support and accommodation that Channel 4 more or less dumped her on Eaves. When I interviewed Denise for my book, Enslaved, in 2007, she said that although it cost £30,000 to support a trafficked woman for a whole year she persuaded the board to use their reserves arguing, ‘if we call ourselves a charity, we call ourselves a woman’s organisation, we have to do this.’ She was unable to raise funding for this work in the early years because funders wanted data on the scale of the problem but she couldn’t assess the scale as the problem had only just been identified.

This story of how Eaves won and lost funding and the recognition of a whole new area of work that it had developed epitomises everything that is wrong with the way the women’s sector is being financed. Eaves was prepared to use some of its reserves because its commitment to desperate women took priority over an accounting requirement that an organisation should have enough money to meet their running costs for a period of three months should they face sudden closure. Whilst this may be good practice, it is a sign of chronic underfunding when organisations are forced to ditch it in favour of their clients’ urgent needs.  Those of us who approach this issue within a feminist framework have more sympathy with this approach than generic organisations where managerialism comes before the needs of desperate women.

Insufficient reserves was the battering ram used against Kids Company, which dealt with some of the most difficult young people, to shut it down suddenly. For Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the CEO, the children came first. Whatever the truth in the accusations and justifications flying about, there is no doubt that Camilla’s spirited critique of government failings in its policy on children played a part in its demise, just as Denise Marshall was a thorn in the side of government. Heather Harvey says, ‘I know that they thought we were trouble’. When they lost the POPPY contract, they were delisted from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice working group on trafficking despite their ten years of experience and nuanced knowledge of trafficking and of traffickers gained from pursuing the most difficult cases. The possibility that the decision was politically motivated is strengthened by Heather’s observation that ‘Practice based evidence would seem to suggest that there is a written or unwritten understanding that Salvation Army will not challenge legal decisions’.

Having been pioneers in the field and having built up expertise, what was particularly galling was not just handing the service over to an organisation which had no expertise but that its religious ethos could not be further from the feminist one which guided POPPY’s work.  I have written about the difficulties faced by non-religious or non-Christian trafficked women who were locked up in safe houses and offered ‘divine attention’ by faith based organisations in Britain. Although this was apparently for their own safety, one of the reasons why women weren’t given the key was that these same places doubled up as detention centres for trafficked women being deported. They had no political qualms acting as both poacher and gamekeeper while POPPY fought every single wrongful deportation and won compensation, using asylum law and everything else in its armoury.  No POPPY worker agreed to move to the Salvation Army under TUPE, Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, which was meant to guarantee jobs on the same terms and conditions for workers who stood to lose their jobs when there was a change of contractors, although they were within their rights to do so.

Whilst TUPE is important for workers, it can be problematic for organisations. When the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Cornwall (WRSAC) lost their award-winning IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advisor) service which they had built up over eleven years to an organisation in another county, their staff moved under TUPE.  The IDVA is a trained specialist whose goal is the safety of domestic abuse victims, focusing on victims at high risk of harm. Maggie Parks, Chief Executive, rues the loss of ‘all our excellent well trained staff and their wealth of experience through the TUPE process’ which, she believes, amounts to a theft of intellectual property. When Cornwall Council moved from grant-aid to commissioning the £400,000 service because EU rules state that contracts over a certain amount must go to tender, the Council stipulated that the service would have to become a generic one i.e. serving both men and women. Parks describes the soul searching that went on inside the organisation about how the commissioning process was forcing them to change their fundamental ethos. In the end although they decided to bid for the generic service they still lost out to Twelve's Company, a Devon based organisation, and are running a reduced service.

When the indigestible truth sank in that Eaves might have to close, in an attempt to ensure that their services survived in some form or another, they carried out an exercise to see which organisations had enough reserves to be able to absorb them. Going through the Charity Commission accounts for 27 organisations working in related fields, they found that most of the organisations large enough to absorb Eaves were generic services, like Hestia, a housing provider. Although it is good news that some parts of their service have been saved, government funding policy has forced Eaves into a process that feels akin to asset stripping: their London Exiting Project for women wanting to leave prostitution, their Research and Development manager’s post and the No Recourse to Public funds worker have been fully or almost fully funded by NIA, a feminist organisation, which has done the best it can within its resources. The Beth Centre for women affected by the criminal justice system which was run in partnership with Women in Prison (WIP) has been taken back by WIP. However, the Alice project which helped nearly 300 women avoid homelessness in 2014, has fallen. The POPPY project with its 15 workers has relocated temporarily in their project manager's home while they await news of funding, of which they are hopeful. Heather Harvey misses the solidarity, the cross-fertilisation, the learning that evolved from a holistic, wraparound service where different parts of the same organisation could meet all the needs of the women.

Read part two of this article 16 Days: cutting Black and minority ethnic women's organisations 

Read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's series on 16 Days Activism Against Gender Violence

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