Council has no real answers as Justice Centre’s funds are cut

Hamida Ali: dared to ask questions of Croydon Council

HAMIDA ALI, right, went to the Town Hall on Monday to ask her first question of councillors. She felt she was insulted and abused

There’s growing concern in Croydon about the fate of the Family Justice Centre, one of many services upon which the borough’s women depend but which seems to have been abandoned by the council, whether through a policy of deliberate neglect or because of the repeated cutting of funding.

But try holding the borough’s councillors to account over this vital service, and based on my experience this week, you risk being subjected to insults and ridicule in the council chamber, with cabinet member Simon Hoar even trying to blame me and an organisation that I work with for an increase in domestic violence as a consequence of our campaigning work to save the Family Justice Centre.

Croydon led the way in 2005, when Europe’s first Family Justice Centre was established in the borough to co-ordinate the statutory and voluntary sector services involved in responding to violence against women. Based on international best practice, Croydon’s FJC saw the borough leading the way in the provision of joined-up support.

But the Family Justice Centre has itself been vulnerable since 2010, when the present Conservative administration was returned to the Town Hall and started cutting public services.

Croydon Council maintains that it has increased funding to the FJC, but women’s groups in the borough have discovered that the centre is suffering death by a thousand cuts: cuts that have led to the loss of advisory staff, the loss of crisis helpline staff, refuge assessors being “let go”, and the loss of a court advocate, counsellors and crèche workers.

The dedicated police Community Safety Unit once based in the FJC has also been relocated. Since the end of last month, the only services left in what was once a truly multi-agency Family Justice Centre are one rape and sexual abuse worker and one children’s counsellor.

And yet the council website maintains that the Family Justice Centre is: “A unique collaboration of resources including medical and legal services, police officers, probation officers, doctors, counsellors, advocates, social workers, housing providers, benefit advice, education providers, children’s services and adult education groups, all from a centralised location.” If only that was still the case.

The council is due to re-commission services but this process has been delayed and the replacement services may not be in place until April. What will happen to women in the meantime?

It was this concern that I raised at the council meeting this week. But Simon Hoar, the senior councillor who is supposed to look after residents’ concerns in this area, didn’t answer my question. Instead, Hoar chose to try to insult me and the women’s groups I represented.

According to the council’s own Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Strategy,
there are almost 6,000 reported incidents of violence against women each
year in Croydon. We can only guess at how many more incidents go unreported.

On Monday night, I had lodged my first ever public question at a full council meeting. It said this:

“With only 16 per cent of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence Strategy budget provided by core funds, how is the total level of funding for the strategy guaranteed beyond the financial year 2013-2014?”

This was the council’s prepared, written answer:

“The funding for RASAC (Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre) is a major commitment of the Mayor of London. This is a transitional arrangement until after 2014 however there is significant commitment to this service from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.

Simon Hoar: dismissive of questioners at council meeting

“The Early Intervention Grant (EIG) is a core part of the funding made available for local authorities to deliver preventative services. The EIG is already un-ringfenced and so the bulk of the funding for domestic violence is part of core funding. The fact that the Council’s budget for this area of work has increased at a time of financial constraint (see September 2012 Cabinet report) is an indication of the Council’s commitment to this area of provision.”

I posed a supplementary question:

“Given that re-commissioning of new services is now delayed until April, what assurance can you give that women – both those with and those without children – will have immediate access in the meantime to the full range of quality services vital to protect them from violence?”

But I was not prepared for the level of offence that Hoar, supposedly the cabinet member for community safety, would cause the Croydon Labour Women’s Forum.

Campaigners protest against cuts outside Croydon’s Family Justice Centre

Hoar’s first resort was to choose irrelevance. More than two years ago, I stood as a Labour candidate for Waddon in the council elections. On Monday, Hoar brought this up and accused me of asking the question only to raise my own profile ahead of the next local government elections. According to Hoar, my political activity  immediately invalidates the legitimacy of my concern for the welfare of Croydon residents.

No other questioner (all men incidentally) was responded to in this way.

What came next, however, was far worse. Again, instead of answering my question, Hoar accused me and the CLWF of “scaremongering”, and of putting women in greater danger. Hoar pointed to us – rather than the perpetrators of domestic violence – as responsible for escalating that risk.

We couldn’t have been more offended by the charge that we would seek to put women at greater risk. Women’s safety from violence is one of society’s gravest issues about which we feel very deeply – and on which we have every right to hold our politicians to account.

Croydon Labour Women’s Forum is a space for women from across Croydon to discuss and mobilise around the issues that affect us. Set up by Labour women, we stand for all women. You don’t need to be a member of the Labour party, or even care about politics, to get involved.

This year we have been campaigning against reductions in services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, calling on the council to reverse the cuts and restore the Family Justice Centre to the multi-agency response to violence against women that it used to be.

We took part in the council’s consultation on their draft Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence strategy raising a series of issues including:

• Scope of new services seems to be unduly focused on women with children. Women from all backgrounds with or without children could experience violence and we need reassurance that the new strategy won’t be delivered at the exclusion of other women at risk
• Governance and accountability for the strategy is being driven by the Children and Families Partnership rather than the Community Safety Partnership when domestic violence and sexual violence are criminal – and clearly community safety matters
• Vast majority of national (and uncertain in the longer term) grant funding that the council is reliant on to deliver the strategy

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