Disabled people’s organisations are in danger of becoming “servants” of their local authorities, as the government encourages them to compete for the right to provide council services, a user-led forum has warned.
North Tyneside Disability Forum (NTDF) is concerned that council cutbacks – combined with the withdrawal of service-level agreements (SLAs) and grant assistance – have left disabled people without vital support, and disabled people’s user-led organisations (DPULOs) struggling to survive.
DPULOs are instead being encouraged to tender for council contracts, forcing them to compete with each other, and bid to provide a service to the council’s specification, often at a lower cost than the previous local authority provider.
NTDF, which is led and directed by disabled people, has been running for more than a quarter of a century and provides services across health and social care, leisure and learning, employability and vocational support, arts and culture, sport, music, health and wellbeing, and welfare rights guidance.
These services are provided independent of local or health authorities, and have been a “lifeline” for many service-users, with disabled people involved in all aspects of service provision “from consultation to planning to delivery and evaluation and monitoring”.
Sue Adams, chief officer of NTDF, said she had decided to speak out after becoming increasingly concerned at the withdrawal of grant aid and SLAs – where organisations are funded to provide a certain service, which they can largely design themselves.
She said this was putting pressure on DPULOs and other voluntary sector groups to “abandon their independent voice and added-value services” and instead consider providing what should be statutory services.
Adams said that DPULOs were now being encouraged to compete with each other, while having the “financial rug of grant aid or SLA pulled from under their feet”, so “forcing them to fight for their very existence in competition to deliver someone else’s services”.
The forum brings in just under £500,000 every year from charitable trusts and members’ own fund-raising efforts, but has recently had a £10,500-per-year SLA withdrawn by North Tyneside council, which is instead seeking tenders to provide services it will commission itself.
NTDF uses the £10,500 to support a range of evening opportunities for disabled young people.
Adams said: “We are, as a DPULO, user-led and user-directed. While DPULOs certainly have the skills and expertise to deliver quality services, we use those skills currently to effectively support the otherwise unmet needs of disabled people and their representatives in our area.
“We are not trying to be the providers of what should be mainstream statutory services.”
Adams said local authorities should be supporting DPULOs through grant funding, rather than asking them to provide statutory services.
Although NTDF is not reliant on council funding itself, she knows many smaller DPULOs that are.
She said: “It is difficult to see tendering as an opportunity or progress because it directly conflicts with the DPULO ethos. It seems very much a step backwards.
“In signing up to deliver someone else’s service to someone else’s specification, we lose our independent voice and the potential to influence or change things. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you.”
Adams added: “The services provided by DPULOs are needed and should be respected and supported appropriately.
“SLAs have been a happy compromise and a means of statutory and voluntary groups working effectively together.
“They should not be abandoned in order to put pressure on DPULOs to become deliverers of local authority services, to a local authority-defined specification.”
She said NTDF had benefited “enormously” from financial support from the Office for Disability Issues’ (ODI) facilitation fund, which had “helped us retain independence and encourage disabled people’s leadership”.
But she said it was “such a shame” that, following that investment, ODI’s own network of DPULOs was now encouraging other DPULOs to train themselves to be better equipped to tender for council-commissioned contracts.
6 August 2014