Advice services feel under threat

Community advice services in Surrey may lose funding or close down as a result of plans by the Department of Health to impose a national telephone and outreach advice service.

They have accused the Government and Surrey County Council of breaching the Compact, which outlines the principles that the Government will follow in its dealings with the voluntary sector.

Care Direct, a one-stop advice service for people of 50 and over, has been piloted in the South West, where it resulted in funding cuts for existing community service providers. Voluntary groups in Surrey, where the second wave of pilots is due to be implemented, are concerned that the same thing may happen to them.

Community groups say they were not consulted adequately, even though the scheme could affect them dramatically. Care Direct was due to come in next month, yet voluntary agencies said they only heard of it in April.

"The Government's line and practice is totally contradictory,

said Julia Grant, chief executive of the Surrey Council for Voluntary Service. "This all smacks of a 'we know best' approach, with a national formula being apparently imposed without taking account of community-sector experience, capacity and contacts. There's been a number of instances where national Compact guidelines haven't been observed in Surrey."

A spokeswoman for Surrey County Council denied any lack of consultation, however. "From the very first stakeholder meeting which was held in March, there was representation from the voluntary sector,

she said, and added that carers, users, and community representatives all sit on the project implementation group.

The accusations come at a sensitive time for the Government, which has over the past few weeks focused attention on the Compact as the main tool it intends to use in reforming its funding relationship with the voluntary sector.

Paul Boateng, chief secretary to the Treasury and the man who has done most to champion the Compact within the Government, told sector leaders this month: "A senior official is to be appointed in each department to mainstream its principles across all the work of the department."

However, voluntary-sector leaders pointed out that this could be undermined by a failure, or unwillingness, to abide by the principles of the Compact at a local level.

The Government is wasting money on services which already exist and are provided by the sector, Alistair Cochrane of Age Concern Runnymede told Third Sector. "They're going to spend a minimum of ?xA3;660,000 on setting this up when as far as we're concerned there is already enormous coverage of that sort of advice for older people,

he said.

Heather Cook, who runs the Runnymede Association of Voluntary Services, said that community groups were "concerned about some separate structure being imposed on top of existing services with a proven track record".

The scheme will not be launched in October as originally planned but it is still unclear whether it will go ahead or not.

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