Kevin Curley: Local groups show great spirit, but more is needed to help the vulnerable

Complex services for the most vulnerable citizens are increasingly at risk as austerity continues, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I enjoyed a morning last month at Derby's annual networking event for the local voluntary sector, organised by Community Action Derby - the CVS for the city.

The event brought together 38 charities, social enterprises and community groups in an impressive exhibition. The energy and diversity of the local sector were on display, with arts and youth groups mixing with organisations supporting people with HIV or with eating disorders.

The impact of funding cuts was very evident. Disability Direct, Derby's independent living centre, had closed its disability discrimination service. Instead of supporting disabled people at employment tribunals, it now gives them a pack of basic information about employment rights. Most disabled people also face a new fee of £1,200 to take a case to tribunal - there seems to be a pattern of reducing access to legal remedies for disabled people who have been sacked.

I met Adam Monkman from Safe and Sound Derby, which works with children who have been sexually exploited. Derby was at the centre of a notorious abuse case in 2010, when nine men were convicted of offences against 27 teenage girls; despite this, Monkman explained, the group had lost its outreach team funding. Even though government seeks its advice on how to tackle the grooming of young people by abusers, income to sustain its work is falling.

Mohammed Sharief is chair of Community Action Derby and leads a charity called Jet - which stands for Jobs, Employment, Training - based in Normanton, Derby's poorest ward. He said that the exhibition demonstrated the positive attitudes of people in the voluntary sector, but beneath the surface the tough times were taking their toll.

In some weeks, 400 unemployed people pass through Jet's doors and Sharief raises money to provide training and help with the preparation of CVs and interview practice. He said he was angry with the Department for Work and Pensions - its Work Programme has excluded Jet - and with the programme's prime contractors, who offered "ridiculous, punitive, high-risk conditions" to potential subcontractors like Jet. He said the sector was also bracing itself for massive cuts to Derby City Council grants in 2014.

Only a few organisations said the cuts in funding and barriers posed by public sector commissioning had not affected their work at all. Martin Austin, managing director of Nimbus, a Derby-based disability consultancy, said a key earner for the enterprise was access accreditation for buildings and venues. "Since the Download Rock Festival near Derby won accreditation, the number of disabled people attending has gone up from 200 to 2,000," he said. "Great for business and for disabled people".

I left with mixed feelings. There was plenty of entrepreneurial spirit in evidence, but also a sense that complex services for our most vulnerable citizens are increasingly at risk as austerity continues.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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