Wiltshire charities 'scared' to raise compact breaches

A significant number of Wiltshire charities are said to be too afraid to speak out against their county council's repeated breaches of the Compact for fear of seeing their funding cut.

A significant number of Wiltshire charities are said to be too afraid to speak out against their county council's repeated breaches of the Compact for fear of seeing their funding cut.

Chris Harris, director of finances and resources at Action for Blind People, told Third Sector that he had heard of a whole string of complaints about Wiltshire County Council. "Local people are scared stiff," he said. "They are in awe of the council."

Action for Blind People is asking new Compact Commissioner John Stoker to get personally involved in its own complaint against Wiltshire council. The charity claims the council breached a promise to pay 50 per cent of redundancy costs if it ended a contract for a sheltered workshop for people with a disability. At the beginning of the contract, all of the service's existing 55 staff were transferred from the council to the charity.

"A year before the contract ended we contacted them to ask what was happening," said Harris. "They ignored us for six to nine months. Eventually they extended the contract by another year because they couldn't decide whether to continue it. They tried to impose a contract extension which removed any right to redundancy payments, but we wouldn't agree to that."

However, the charity claims that when the contract was terminated the council said it was now too late to claim help with redundancy costs, amounting to about £60,000, because the original five-year contract had expired.

The case follows that of another Wiltshire charity, the Bridge Project, whose directors have decided to close the charity after the council ended a contract without explanation (Third Sector Online, 12 March 2007).

The NCVO's Compact Advocacy Programme has now taken up both cases. Programme manager Saskia Daggett said the council's actions were "certainly a breach of the principles of the compact, which are all about discussion, dialogue, consistency and empathy."

She also said she received a "disappointing response" when she raised Action for Blind People's case with Wiltshire County Council. Harris says his charity chose to go to the Advocacy Programme, rather than to court, in order  to send a message to the council that it is "playing hardball" with the third sector.

"We wanted to say to Wiltshire County Council that this is unacceptable: you can't treat the voluntary sector like this. We are going to push it as far as it will go."

Wiltshire Country Council declined to comment.

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