Police are investigating allegations of fraud after Disability in Camden (DISC) was forced to close after a £300,000 black hole was discovered in its accounts.
The decision to close DISC and make all of its nearly 20 staff redundant was made just months after members celebrated its 40th birthday.
Callers to the DISC numbers are now played a recorded message, which says: “Unfortunately we have now ceased operating so will not be able to answer your query or check any voicemails.”
Although the organisation – which provided advice and information on benefits, advocacy, information and support for British Sign Language-users, employment and volunteering support, and a personal budget support service – was led by disabled people at board level, the majority of staff were not disabled.
Police were called in after the new chief executive uncovered a huge hole in the organisation’s accounts, soon after he took over in February. He apparently realised that DISC had been technically insolvent for the last six months.
DISC service-users and supporters are furious with Camden council, which they say should have uncovered the alleged fraud itself.
The user-led organisation WinVisible, which represents disabled women and is also based in the borough, questioned why the alleged theft was not spotted earlier.
A WinVisible spokeswoman said: “We at WinVisible and other people in the community want to know what has happened to the £277,000 designated for disabled people to get help – with getting benefits, against their benefit being cut, housing problems, bills and debts, sign language interpreting and other services.
“Now where will disabled people get the help they urgently need? Although Camden council is referring people to other places, we know people are not getting the services they need.”
Last month, a packed public meeting was held in Camden to discuss what had happened and how DISC could be replaced.
Gemma Sheridan, a disabled member of Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group, who attended the meeting, said service-users were angry with the council, and felt “isolated and frightened” without DISC.
She said: “They were respected. Now DISC isn’t here, it is very different. People are very, very frightened.”
She said she believed the council was trying to blame DISC’s long-serving former chief executive, Akin Olukiran.
Olukiran has taken up a new post as chief executive of the Institute of Voluntary Sector Management in Lagos, Nigeria, after more than 11 years in charge at DISC, but is apparently splitting his time between Nigeria and London, where his family still live.
In March, Olukiran posted a cryptic message on his Facebook page, which said: “Taking your eyes off the ball and being over-optimistic to the extent that you hurt what and who matter most to you – friends and not just colleagues – is both painful and heart-breaking.
“Your heart bleeds because you love these friends and place and would not do anything to hurt them.
“Your actions, which were in good faith but based on over-optimism and looking too much to the future have upset the loving relationship that you had. May God heal all the wounds.”
A Met police spokeswoman said the force received an allegation of fraud in April, and it was still being investigated. No arrests have been made.
There are also concerns that the closure of DISC could scupper plans for a new centre for independent living (CIL) in Camden.
The council was preparing to put out to tender a contract to run the CIL, and DISC was at the head of a consortium – involving Camden People First, the Elfrida Society and Age UK – that was in prime position to win it.
Cllr Pat Callaghan, Camden council’s cabinet member for adult social care, said in a statement that DISC’s services were “much valued”, and that the council had been “working hard” to ensure that disabled people who use support services “continue to receive care”.
He said: “We will continue to work closely with a range of local organisations to ensure that alternative support options are available for anyone who needs them.
“We have been talking to each of our customers about their support options and I am confident that we are doing everything we can to support residents at this difficult time.”
But the council has so far refused to answer any questions about the DISC closure from Disability News Service.
5 June 2014