Good news or bad news – make up your own mind

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We didn’t know where to put this on the website. It’s a story of all
the bad things that are going on which led to the Coalition. But it
also shows bravery and resilience in response to abuse of power. So
you’ll find this story under both good and bad news.

Advocacy in Darlington is an inspiring story of how you don’t have
to take it. Manager Chris Close tells how they stood up to Social
Services in the interests of the people they work with, survived
withdrawal of funding and went on to find other ways of continuing the

It shows the vital role of independent advocacy, and the need for
funders who provide services to recognise this. Also it illustrates how
tendering can be used to get rid of people perceived as troublemakers.
And most of all, it shows that it is possible to survive loss of
funding, continuing to work in a way that is congruent with your
beliefs and principles. As Chris says… We are now poor in money but
rich in spirit and in camaraderie. This is our community and not the
property of a self appointed few who happen to have power and money.
With a will and shared knowledge, we really can reclaim our communities
and take power back from people only interested in themselves and not
in the community they were paid to serve”.

We don’t have to take it any more

Did you ever see a film called Network, starring Peter Finch as a disaffected radio presenter? If so, you’ll remember him persuading people all over the city to stand at their windows and shout out together: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”.

Advocacy in Darlington is an inspiring story of how you don’t have to take it. Manager Chris Close tells how they stood up to Social Services in the interests of the people they work with, survived withdrawal of funding and went on to find other ways of continuing the work.

How Council funding came to be withdrawn

Good relationships initially

In 1998 I took over as manager of Advocacy in Darlington(AD), which provides one to one advocacy and group support for people with mental health issues and people with learning disabilities. I developed good relations with Darlington Borough Council and by 2001 we had an agreement with them to provide a range of advocacy and support services in various community, residential and hospital settings. We also contributed to policy forums and supported service users in doing so.

We had a very healthy and by and large positive relationship with the Council, though we had to be challenging sometimes because our work can involve very serious issues, which cannot simply be resolved by having a “quiet word”. The people we work with can’t always speak up for themselves, so independent advocacy is crucial – which the managers then working for Social Services recognised.

The beginnings of conflict

The trouble started in 2002, when a new Director of Social Services was appointed. We started having battles just because we were trying to advocate – to do our job. Some examples:

  • potential abuse in a care home which the previous Social Services regime had asked us to work with. We found there were serious problems including unexplained bruising on people’s bodies and faces, food trodden into the carpet, allegations of continence needs left unattended, windows left wide open in the middle of winter (perhaps because of the pervading smell of urine), inadequate diet, parts of the building often left unsupervised, residents left with no underwear because they were likely to soil. When we discussed these with Social Services our complaints were not dealt with, it was implied that our funding might be at risk and eventually – apparently with Social Services knowledge – the home managers excluded us from the premises. So these very vulnerable people were left without any external independent support.
  • A severely disabled man who could not walk, had breathing problems and a sight impairment, left without his essential Social Services home care for months after it was alleged he had made homophobic comments to a carer. It was only when I intervened that care was restored (through my arranging direct payments).
  • · A physically disabled woman who suffered from depression, placed in a care home where she could not go out because her wheelchair would not fit in the door. She eventually became so ill she had to be hospitalised. We complained to the Commission for Social Care Inspection on her behalf and their subsequent inspection report judged that the home did not meet care standards in twenty areas. The police were also called in to investigate possible financial irregularities.

Relationships worsen

Crises continued to occur, but whereas before we had taken them up through working in partnership with colleagues in Social Services and Health, we found attitudes were now very different. Discussions regarding our Service Level Agreement with Darlington Social Services and Darlington PCT ground to a halt. Advocacy, which had previously been looked upon as a valued service, was clearly identified as the enemy by the new management team (by and large recruited from the Director’s former authority).

In 2003, the Director prevented payment of invoices we had submitted for work which had been commissioned by previous managers. The invoices were only paid when we contacted DBC’s Chief Executive. Then in early 2004, the Council put out a Tender for Advocacy Services even though we were already providing these under a draft service level agreement so it seemed we were being squeezed out. Our application was rejected and we were told that documents were missing even though we delivered then by hand, Eventually they re-tendered the service as no-one had satisfied the conditions first time round.

Things reached crisis point when we took up health and safety concerns in a nursing home. One of our advocates had discovered external bolts on residents’ doors, fire doors wedged open, unexplained and undocumented injuries probably resulting from falls, etc. She had been advocating for one of our clients with dementia who had been placed there; but the home and Social Services management refused to accept her advocacy role. When I took the issues up the Director of Social Services complained to my trustees that I was personally attacking her staff. We also heard that she had supplied an adverse reference to Durham County Council, to whom we were bidding for other work.

Finally, in October 2004, we lost the contract (what a surprise). It was awarded to a national mental health charity, Together – Working for WellBeing (previously known as MACA), with no experience in advocacy except in special hospitals, but who were ‘safe’ and agreed within the contract only to provide advocacy to people referred by Social Services.

How we survived the crisis

The last straw

All the time that I worked for AD, we worked from Council premises provided rent-free. But after we lost the contract they said we could not stay there and in July 2007 they issued eviction proceedings – extraordinarily, not against AD, but against me personally! I had to defend this myself because there was no legal aid available, and the Judge dismissed the proceedings against me. The case against the Trustees is ongoing.

How we reacted

Our trustees initially blamed me for the breakdown in communications, though when they began to see how the Council actually operated, this changed. I lost track of the number of times the trustees would ask me ‘have you heard from the Council?’ – mistakenly believing that the Council would see the error of their ways and bring us back into the fold. By the time the trustees realised what was happening, we were playing ‘catch up’ in a game which was totally uneven and where the Council had so much power, it believed it could make up the rules to suit itself.

Eventually after months of us working through this and with the increasing evidence we found of how bad things were becoming in Darlington, we simply came together as a group of people and began to claw our way back.

Luckily for us, I had always managed our resources on the basis that we needed to build up ‘rainy day’ money and so we had developed a working reserve which kept us going for quite a while.

Trying to get support

If anything demonstrates the need for local Compacts to be binding on councils if the voluntary sector is to survive, it is our case. It exemplifies the pitfalls where the voluntary sector signs up to a ‘Compact’ where the ‘consideration’ only comes from one side – ours. We asked for help from NCVO’s Compact Advocacy Scheme, who advocated on our behalf, but who the Council merely fobbed them off. The Compact had no teeth.

We asked for help from our local CVS and whilst the previous Chief Officer did write a letter of support on our behalf, they gave no practical assistance, seeming more concerned to become the token representative of the ‘Third Sector’ whilst taking no action to defend it. They are content to take their seat at the Council’s table.

Other organisations were powerless to offer support because they were (are) heavily dependent on Council funding and did not want to even ‘nibble’ the hand that fed them. An added problem for us of course was that many of these organisations had become dependent on the ‘contract culture’. As well as their financial dependency on the Council and the local PCT, they also had become quasi-statutory sector service providers against whom we might have to advocate – so our demise and replacement by a more ‘comfortable’ advocacy provider suited everyone except our clients

Surviving against the odds

When we lost the contract/relationship with the Council, of course the rumour mill went into overdrive, fuelled by misinformation, innuendo and downright lies put out by the Council and some of their ‘friends’ in Darlington. Nobody would touch us in terms of funding and we spent a great deal of time dealing with some of the more bizarre claims about us.

However we kept our powder dry and worked on continuing to provide a quality service to the people who really mattered most; the people who needed our help and the people who worked for us whether on a paid or voluntary basis. Although we now operate on a smaller scale than before, we have managed to get some funding elsewhere to enable our work to continue. For example we won a contract to provide a programme for people with learning disabilities to develop life skills with 18 of the 34 people on the programme finding work or training or voluntary placements after the programme ended and others continuing to work with us at their pace, to later complete the programme outside the funded time. We continue to provide Speaking up Groups for Adults with learning disabilities and also one to one advocacy for people who use services across the disability spectrum.

We also offer specialised training modules around Valuing People, person centred planning, mental health including the Mental Capacity Act. This is proving popular to outside agencies and keeps the money coming in – although like everyone else there is never enough to do what you really want to do.

Like many in the sector, we make do and provide a great deal for very little money – best value! We do need to increase our income to maintain our services but we do feel we have done well so far.

Why did this happen?

When this began, I had been working and managing the project for six years during which time we were very well thought of. This situation only altered when there was a regime change within the Council, which became orientated entirely towards Government ‘hard’ targets about cost reduction at the expense of policy guidance such as ‘Valuing People’ which is about empowerment of people with learning disabilities.

As independent advocates, we have been on the receiving end of a backlash where a Council has tried to ignore qualitative outcomes for our clients in favour of job protection and cost reduction,. We have tried to challenge honestly and, originally, in a non confrontational way – which with hindsight, the Council merely took as a sign of weakness! We were therefore ill prepared to face the out and out attack which was clearly intended to destroy us and the voice we provided for the people with learning disabilities and people with mental health issues to whom we provided support.

Lessons we have learned

The saving grace for us was that we did not believe that we needed the permission of the self appointed ‘proper people’ to exist. Providing our funding did not justify them directing our existence and indeed in trying to do so, they compromised our relationship with them. They were metaphorically holding the funding ‘gun’ to our heads and when we did not comply, they fired – but only ‘semi’ blanks causing us damage but not a fatal wound.

Our Trustees learned that management and control of our project was in their ‘gift’ and not the Council’s, and we did not need the Council to survive. The experience whilst difficult has been genuinely empowering.

I have learned that we need to stay one step ahead of the game in our knowledge around our work and to ensure that we always, always have a solid evidence base when we are advocating on behalf of our clients.

All of us have learned that without our integrity and transparent independence, our work is always capable of being undermined by the funding dilemma. When we worked previously in mutually challenging ‘partnership’ with people in the statutory sector, our ability to advocate was never compromised by our partners holding the funding issue over our heads. Funding only became an issue when they tried to force us to hold back when issues of justice and principle were at stake. This was a price far too high for any of us to pay if we were to retain our integrity and the integrity of the service we provide. Without independence and integrity, ‘advocacy” would be meaningless and fatally flawed.

So where are we now?

We are poor in money but rich in spirit and in camaraderie and looking all the time for other people to join in what we do and to gain from our experience that together we don’t have to take this anymore. This is our community and not the property of a self appointed few who happen to have power and money. With a will and shared knowledge, we really can reclaim our communities and take power back from people only interested in themselves and not in the community they were paid to serve.

We are not out of the woods yet – yesterday (13.5.08) we again resisted attempts to evict us – but as we say here “Die hard with a vengeance”!!! We have survived for over three years now without the grace and favour of Darlington Borough Council. They have lost a critical friend and turned other people in the town against them for their attacks on the service we provide, which is viewed very positively by local people.

Would we wish to go through this again? I will tell you when we celebrate another 10 years in Darlington and have branches elsewhere offering people the same unequivocal and honest advocacy support.

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