Laura Seebohm: The funding threat to the women's sector

We need longer-term support to address the impact of sexual exploitation

Laura Seebohm
Laura Seebohm

I recently received a long-awaited email from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stating that Changing Lives had been successful in securing £1m from the latest round of the Tampon Tax Fund.

The funding was granted to help services provide long-term support for women who have been groomed for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The win represents a partnership with five specialist women’s sector providers across the north east of England and Yorkshire: GROWA WAY OUTTogether WomenBasis and WomenCentre (Kirklees and Calderdale).

I was delighted. I have written a number of blogs about our experiences supporting women affected by Operation Sanctuary – the police investigation of abuse allegations in north-east England – examining how this happened under our watch and highlighting the awful regularity with which these sexual exploitation cases come to light in our towns and cities.

At Changing Lives we have long documented the impact on the women we support as prosecution witnesses, the ongoing blame, shame and stigma apportioned to women and the appalling long-term outcomes for them as individuals.

A number of serious case reviews have identified the need for longer-term support to address the effects of severe trauma and the lack of research and evidence about the impact of sexual exploitation.

The Tampon Tax Fund represents an opportunity to do something significant at a larger scale, because this level of funding is unprecedented for the women’s sector. It’s opened the door for specialist women’s services to reach out to women affected by Operation Sanctuary in Tyne and Wear, Operation Stovewood in Rotherham, Operation Tendersea in Huddersfield, Operation Applehall in Leeds, Operation Cotton in Stockton, Operation Linden in Sheffield and other emerging areas such as Bradford.

We will be supporting efforts where there are emerging, current and recent sexual exploitation investigations. Most of the work will take place in the community, but we will also bring support into HM Prison New Hall and HMP Low Newton for women serving sentences who have been affected by these cases.

This geographical scope has allowed us to develop a strong partnership with our colleagues in the women’s sector, which is how it should be.

If genuine impact is to be achieved from the Tampon Tax Fund, it must be used to support a women’s sector that is increasingly under threat. We see women’s centres closing on an alarmingly regular basis and, despite evidence of the sector’s impact and expressed political commitment to sustain it, this is not matched by anywhere near the financial support required.

Despite our own recent success at securing funding, each of the organisations within this partnership wholeheartedly support our colleagues who critique the way the Tampon Tax Fund is administered.

This year, as in previous years, a number of medium and small charities from within the women’s sector came together in partnerships to submit proposals. It is important to note that the only other successful applicant this year from within this arena was Southall Black Sisters, in its partnership with the Angelou Centre.

It’s great that they were successful, but too many other important services spent a huge amount of (scarce) time and resources in yet another futile application process.

A number of the other successful applicants are from existing funders such as Comic Relief, on the basis that they will administer ongoing grants to the women’s sector – in a sense, on behalf of the government. These grants are too often for small amounts (£10k-£20k) and when we are unable to pay for salaries for specialist staff we struggle. We know only too well that our assets are the commitment, compassion and expertise of our people.

Furthermore, the sector is already overly reliant on numerous small funding streams that rarely cover full infrastructure costs. The impact of small pots of money is limited, and that’s before the grant-maker’s administration costs are taken off the total amount going to sector organisations.

So it was no surprise to us that, on the day the successful applicants were announced, some criticism was directed at large organisations such as Changing Lives. As a charity we are relatively large, working across the north and the Midlands, and we are not women-only. Our specialist women’s services represent one of our four themes, sitting alongside our homelessness, recovery and employment work. We understand the concerns raised and we agree with them in many respects.

We are operating in a flawed commissioning and funding system. We see ever-larger contracts put out to tender, locking out smaller organisations. Too often commissioners might choose the larger organisations that can cover the area, rather than a range of small, specialist, community-led charities.

Within an ever-stretched landscape, including commissioners themselves operating on a shoestring, decisions are made for efficiency and our ecosystem of a diverse voluntary community sector is at risk of being decimated.

At Changing Lives we reflect on our relative power as a larger charity in the sector. We adopt an ethical business policy that aims to nurture partnerships in the sector, rather than undermine the work of local, specialist organisations.

We encourage others larger charities to do the same.

Laura Seebohm is executive director of Changing Lives

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