Brighton and Hove City Council has defended the decision that cost a Brighton domestic violence charity a £5 million contract.
Senior councillors shared their shock when the situation was raised at a budget meeting.
And they promised to look into the decision that will lead to RISE being replaced by Victim Support and the social housing provider Stonewater.
RISE has run refuge and helpline services in Brighton and Hove for the past 26 years.
Today (Friday 19 February) councillors were told in a briefing that the bids to run the domestic violence and abuse support services were evaluated by officials from Brighton and Hove City Council and East Sussex County Council as well as representatives of Sussex Police and the Office of the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner.
The briefing said: “The specification for the recommissioning of the services in Brighton and Hove and East Sussex was informed by a comprehensive series of engagement events with multiple community and third sector stakeholders, including RISE and other incumbent providers, between January and October 2019.
“The engagement identified the need for a broader focus on inclusive service provision that caters for the needs of people with all the protected characteristics.
“Equalities impact assessments (EIAs) were carried out for the redesign of all services and identified the need for a broader focus on inclusive service provision that caters for the needs of people with all the protected characteristics.
“A commissioned report found that currently contracted domestic abuse services are viewed as much more accessible to women and that current onsite provision is women-only.
“The EIAs highlighted the need for more support for both heterosexual and gay male survivors and also highlighted the specific barriers to service experienced by the trans community, with trans survey respondents noting that the type of support they wanted was not available.
“The tender specification for community services was therefore intentionally non-gendered and inclusive to all survivors of domestic and sexual violence and abuse.
“However, it included a specific acknowledgement that the largest proportion of people needing support will be women, and women with children, and that all bids should include proportionate consideration of the impact of abuse on women and children.
“The tender specification and questions were drafted in line with the Brighton and Hove Social Value Framework and the Social Value Act.
“The social value of the services provided was embedded throughout the questions.
“The services were let in separate ‘lots’ to cover the different geographic areas and enable a wide variety of bidders with expertise in specific areas, such as stalking and sexual violence and abuse.
“The contracts exclusively providing services in Brighton and Hove cover two service areas – community domestic violence and abuse outreach services and a refuge service.
“Other lots cover Sussex-wide support for sexual violence and abuse services, and a new contract for services supporting survivors of stalking and harassment.”
The panel looking into each tender found that Victim Support had a “tailored response” to providing domestic abuse services in Brighton and Hove and was “fully survivor-focused”.
Councillors were also asked to let people know that new refuge provider Stonewater had won awards from the National Housing Federation, Homeless Link and Women in Housing and had a track record of working with survivors of domestic abuse.
The briefing to councillors said: “They are also the providers of an industry leading LGBTQ+ Safe Space that provides accommodation and support for people who identify as LGBTQ+ and have experienced domestic abuse and/or hate crime.
“Stonewater’s model is to take a person-centred strengths-based approach to supporting residents, and all staff are trained in ‘trauma informed care’ and ‘psychologically informed environments’.”
After RISE and other bidders were told the result of the tender process, there was a two-week standstill but no organisations challenged the decision.
Later, notice of a possible judicial review was given but then withdrawn.
The briefing said: “There are no further legal steps that can be taken to challenge the awards in line with procurement law.
“The council has to award the contracts to the bidders who achieved the highest scores.”
The recommissioning process began in 2018 – and the procurement process last went before councillors at the Tourism, Equalities, Communities and Culture Committee in January last year during a “community safety strategy update”.
The tender process was due to go live last February but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the end, existing contracts were extended and bids to run the services were invited in the autumn.
Former councillor Emma Daniel led the process at a political level when the domestic violence and abuse service were “redesigned” and “restructured”.
She is shocked that RISE lost the contract and said: “Having looked at the papers for the committee meetings in 2020 when the process went live, there is no decision to make changes to the process as outlined in 2018.
“Officers should have proceeded as outlined and agreed by councillors back then, unless they had specific agreement to change it.
“The shocking lack of oversight in this process for such a sensitive and important commission is outrageous.
“In addition, it’s appalling to throw into the mix the suggestion that existing provision wasn’t LGBT+ inclusive. RISE is well known as an LGBT+ inclusive service.
“In fact, when I visited the refuge, it was a trans woman who gave me a tour and explained her situation to me.”
In response to the public outcry the council said: “To make sure the city council continues to offer the best support possible for survivors of domestic violence and abuse in Brighton and Hove, at the end of the previous contract, a fair procurement exercise was run.
“The process must – by law – be conducted to be competitive.
“The awarding of the contracts is required to meet a number of legal requirements, and it is run separately from councillors. The process to review them began in 2018.
“These services are provided in line with the Pan-Sussex Strategic Framework for Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse and as part of joint commissioning arrangements with the Brighton and Hove CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner.
“It is our shared priority to end domestic abuse across the county and keep people safe.
“Following evaluation of the bids by council officers, the contract for providing the community domestic abuse outreach service was awarded to Victim Support, with the contract for providing the refuge units awarded to Stonewater Ltd.
“The Victim Support team is Sussex-based and supported by over 79 Sussex resident volunteers. The team is primarily funded within the county but is also part of a national service, with a 24-hour helpline.
“Last year, Victim Support Sussex handled 3,402 referrals regarding people experiencing domestic violence and abuse living in Brighton and Hove.
“Stonewater provides services in Brighton and Hove and across the UK. It is a national social housing provider.
“The council would like to thank our previous provider, RISE, for the support services they’ve provided over the last few years. We understand that people are really clear about the value of RISE as an organisation.
“Council officers are also working with RISE to ensure the smooth transition of the service and access routes remain open for anyone needing advice and support.
“For anyone experiencing any type of abuse, it is important to know that help remains available from police and support services. Anyone in immediate danger should always call 999.”
RISE’s head of client services Kate Dale said that the public response was overwhelming and moving.
She has asked the Green council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty to offer the charity a share of the £600,000 announced last week by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to tackle domestic violence.
RISE will continue to operate its helpline and trauma therapy service because this is funded through the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).
Councillor Mac Cafferty has asked to meet with RISE.
Labour councillor Daniel Yates has asked for a review of the procurement process in his capacity as chair of the council’s Audit and Standards Committee.
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