An unnamed local authority has told other public bodies not to refer abused women to a domestic violence charity it once funded because the charity had spoken out against the authority's policy, according to the head of the Women's Aid Federation of England.
Polly Neate, chief executive of the federation, was giving evidence yesterday to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, a project funded by the Baring Foundation, which will produce its fourth and final annual report in January.
The federation is a national body with 350 member charities that provide specialised domestic violence support across the country. Most of those charities are funded from a mix of sources, including local authorities, she said.
Neate said she was very concerned that many public bodies – she said she would not name any "for obvious reasons" – were intolerant of her members speaking out on issues affecting their beneficiaries.
"When they asked for feedback on why they lost tenders, several services have been told, off the record, that it's because they challenged previous decisions," she told the panel. "This is not isolated; this is day in, day out."
She gave the example of a charity that lost a local authority contract earlier in the year, which she said she understood was because it had spoken out.
"The local authority has written to other statutory organisations saying they should no longer refer to this organisation," Neate said. The letters were sent this week, she said: "The service still exists because it has other funders, but it's totally bizarre because they're punishing the women."
Neate said that many local authorities that fund domestic violence refuges had started to insist that most or all of their spaces were given to local women. She said this was impractical because it was safer for victims of domestic abuse to distance themselves from their abusers. "It's very common now – and it's quite a dangerous policy – to restrict spaces to local users," she said. "We're finding that local organisations no longer challenge this because they feel this will lose them a tender."
Other charities reported having been banned from talking to the media as part of their contracts, she said.
"I don't think you can paint a more gloomy picture than what is going on in women's organisations," she said.
Louise Whitfield, a member of the independence panel and a partner at the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, said: "All the things you have described are completely unlawful – none of those things should be happening at all."
In the charity sector as a whole, said Neate, some disadvantaged groups or individuals no longer relied on charities to represent them as much, thanks to modern technology. "Despite everything everyone says about charities speaking out, we're in an age where people can speak out," she said. "It's no longer mediated through journalists; with social media, they often don't need charities to speak out for them."