Row over domestic abuse service spurs councillors to pledge a ‘thorough investigation’

Councillors promised a thorough investigation into changes to domestic abuse and violence services after the Brighton charity RISE lost a council contract.

They unanimously agreed to investigate and review Brighton and Hove City Council’s policies on social value and community wealth building when commissioning and procuring services.

The pledges came after they heard from victims of domestic abuse at a virtual meeting of the council’s Tourism, Equalities, Communities and Culture (TECC) Committee yesterday (Thursday 12 March).

Next week the matter is due to be debated by the council’s Policy and Resources (P&R) Committee, which is made up of senior councillors from the three parties – Green, Labour and Conservative.

They are expected to set up a cross-party working group of councillors to investigate and review the relevant council policies and recommend any changes necessary for improvement.

In January RISE learnt that it had lost contracts to run a refuge and provide community domestic violence and abuse services.

The charity has operated in Brighton and Hove for 26 years, offering support by women for women.

Some of those helped by RISE started a petition, attracting more than 27,000 signatures, calling on the council to change its decision which was made in partnership with East Sussex County Council.

Yesterday RISE supporters asked a series of questions about the future of domestic abuse services locally and the recommissioning process.

They wanted to know how the council would prevent the changes from destabilising RISE and whether a £600,000 government grant would be used to help RISE help survivors of domestic abuse.

Councillor Martin Osborne, who chaired the meeting, said that he could not fully answer all the questions because the council had been told that it may face legal action over the row.

The legal threat is understood to have come from a RISE service user.

The committee also received a report which said that a cross-party working group should have been set up in 2018 to oversee the commissioning process – but this never happened.

Even if it had been set up, councillors would not have been involved in evaluating the contract bids and, the committee was told, procurement law required councils to select the best tender.

Councillor Martin Osborne

The report said: “Awarding public contracts is tightly regulated to ensure all bidders are treated equally and to ensure the process is non-discriminatory and transparent.

“It is unlawful to design a procurement to artificially narrow competition.

“The council must try to ensure a level playing field for all bidders and must evaluate tenders objectively.”

The Green leader of the council, Phélim Mac Cafferty, said that he had met with survivors and RISE to make sure that their voices were heard.

He told the committee that he had many questions about why the service went out to tender and he recalled concerns raised by Green councillor Pete West in July 2018.

This was when members of the now-defunct Neighbourhoods, Inclusion, Communities and Equalities (NICE) Committee first discussed the process and sought more reassurances from officials.

At the committee’s next meeting, in October 2018, councillors agreed that the commissioning process should include a cross-party member working group, an agreed statement of expectations and a commissioning timetable.

Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty

Councillor Mac Cafferty criticised former councillor Emma Daniel, who chaired the NICE Committee at the time.

Without naming her at the meeting yesterday, Councillor Mac Cafferty criticised her for not agreeing to renegotiate the contract with RISE.

He said that the timeline showed insufficient oversight and added that it needed to be “fleshed out”.

The Green Party took over the running of the council 21 months after the process started, Councillor Mac Cafferty said, and they assumed that the previous administration “had this in hand”.

He said: “Despite being thrown into this storm, Greens are committed to finding a way forward.

“We stand with all those who have experienced domestic abuse in our city and we are resolute in our belief that domestic violence services are essential.

“It is vital we get to the bottom of this and learn lessons.”

Emma Daniel

Ms Daniel responded on Twitter to Councillor Mac Cafferty’s comments about her role as chair of the NICE Committee.

She said: “It’s kind of a straw man … the eventual process bore no relation to the process that was agreed in my time.

“All parties voted for that process – I didn’t make them do that (if only I had that kind of mesmerising power).

“But I, and I guess those members, were convinced and advised that it would be against other council policy to do a negotiated process.

“On reflection, I think that this needed push-back, and I think the review of applying social value in the competitive process can look at that properly.”

Green councillor Steph Powell, who co-chairs the TECC Committee, said that since councillors first made the decision, there had been five committee chairs, with responsibility moving from the NICE Committee to the TECC Committee.

Over the same period, domestic violence and abuse services had been the responsibility of three successive executive directors.

Councillor Steph Powell

She shared her frustration that a committee previously dedicated to equalities and communities, with significant input from the community and voluntary sector, was now “lumped in” with tourism and planning.

And she said that the failure to set up the cross-party members’ group was among a “myriad” of different issues that needed to be “fleshed out”.

She said that, as someone who had worked in the third sector, she was well aware of how charities and community groups could reach people that the council could not.

She said: “Community organisations are often able to engage with people that the council simply cannot reach and support some of the most vulnerable and marginalised residents, preventing complex problems and reducing social isolation.

“The council could not do without the insights that the voluntary sector provides on how policy affects our communities.”

Councillor Powell also said that domestic abuse affected all levels of society after one of the survivors who spoke at the start of the meeting told councillors to “check their privilege”.

Councillor Dee Simson

The speaker, identified as Ms A said: “I would like to take this opportunity to remind all the councillors and anyone involved in this process who does not have the first-hand experience of these issues and services, this is really a condition of privilege.

“I would like to invite you all, as the kids say, to check your privilege.”

Councillor Powell said: “I would say to that person – and anyone listening – that anyone can experience domestic violence and that includes members sitting here today and officers.”

The committee was asked to support the setting up of a cross-party working group to review the council’s policy on social value and community wealth-building when commissioning services. This was agreed unanimously.

The final decision on whether to set up the working group will be made by the council’s Policy and Resources Committee next Thursday (18 March).

Councillors unanimously voted for a Conservative amendment asking the working group to carry out a thorough investigation into the events leading to the changes in domestic abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence services.

They also asked councillors to express their concern that the council’s Audit and Standards Committee would not be carrying out an investigation.

Councillor Robert Nemeth

Conservative councillor Dee Simson also spoke about RISE losing its contract. She said: “It’s been the main topic of debate since the announcement was made.

“But it’s been pushed from pillar to post with no firm recommendations on how it can be investigated and possibly rectified.

“The women of the city deserve better. They need to know how it happened and why it happened. The only thing that can show them this is a thorough investigation.”

She questioned how the Labour administration could have taken its eye off the ball and why East Sussex County Council had been allowed to lead the process.

She also criticised a decision to change the name of the service from the Portal to the Victim Hub, saying that those who had experienced domestic abuse were “survivors not victims”.

Another Conservative councillor, Robert Nemeth, said that he was also concerned that the Audit and Standards Committee was not investigating, describing its powers as the “gold standard”.

Councillor Amanda Evans

He said: “The proposed report on future ways of handling such procurement issues is to be welcomed but if the lessons of the past are not properly learnt, then this could happen again.

“As the councillor leading on scrutiny of the Labour proposals in 2018 for a Sussex-wide early procurement exercise, I feel like all of the work that I and others put into that was a complete waste of time.

“The minutes clearly show that Conservatives and Greens opposed such changes and, once the proposed changes were defeated, that the administration of the day was to react accordingly.

“‘Accordingly’ should not have meant not doing a single thing to listen to our concerns or, indeed, the concerns of what were at the time, and what we now know for sure to be, tens of thousands of residents.”

Labour councillor Amanda Evans responded on behalf of her colleague Councillor Daniel Yates, who chairs the Audit and Standards Committee but who is not a member of the TECC Committee.

She said that he had not declined to investigate but had deferred a decision because he was advised by senior officials that the matter was being considered by the TECC Committee – and next week by the P&R Committee, the senior committee on the council.

Councillor Amanda Grimshaw

She said that the proposed cross-party working group should be able to make recommendations about how £600,000 of new government funding could support survivors of domestic abuse and violence.

She said that she had been “shocked to the core” when the news broke about RISE losing its contracts under the joint procurement process.

Councillor Evans said: “Clearly, we need to fully question and understand what has happened here.

“We need to learn. And to do that questioning, understanding and learning, we need the proposed working group to be set up with urgency by P&R.”

Labour councillor Amanda Grimshaw described herself as a “strong survivor, not a victim”, adding that the council had to do all that it could to find out why it had ended up in a situation where RISE had lost its contracts.

RISE volunteers in t-shirts bearing slogans written by domestic abuse survivors to illustrate the support that they received from the charity

Councillor Grimshaw said: “This has caused genuine distress citywide, as reflected by the public outcry and the 27,820 petitioners, which is still climbing.

“The petition is being presented at P&R next week. Domestic abuse is unfortunately still rife and is unlikely to ever go away.

“We know with the pandemic and its resulting isolation, this is impacting severely on people’s mental health and cases are increasing.”

The council’s Policy and Resources Committee is due to hold a virtual meeting starting at 4pm next Thursday (18 March) which should be webcast on the council website.

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