Sex offender appointment leads to closure of website for disabled

Funding withdrawn after Hampshire Coalition of Disabled People refused to carry out Criminal Records Bureau checks on its chief executive

Hampshire County Council
Hampshire County Council

An innovative website set up with £1.3m of public money to help disabled and older people has closed because of the actions of the charity that ran it.

Equipmentdirect.org.uk was considered to be an example of effective cross-sector working when it was launched in 2007 by the Hampshire Coalition of Disabled People, an umbrella organisation controlled by disabled people.

HCODP received £1.1m to develop Equipmentdirect.org.uk from the Invest to Save Budget, a Treasury and Cabinet Office initiative to improve public services, between 2003 and 2006. It also received £80,000 from Hampshire County Council and £90,000 from the now defunct Blackwater Valley & Hart Primary Care Trust.

But early last year, HCODP employed as its chief executive a man who had been sentenced in 1993 to two years in prison for a sex offence. The council asked the charity to carry out Criminal Records Bureau checks on him, as required in its funding conditions.

But it refused, so the council halted its funding and took down the website, which it had hosted. Prospective funding from other councils then failed to materialise and Equipmentdirect.org.uk closed last year.

Together with Southampton City Council, Hampshire County Council also reported HCODP to the Charity Commission, which opened a statutory inquiry.

The commission reported its findings last month without identifying the charity or the trustees and chief executive. It said it was prevented from publishing names by its obligations under the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.

The report revealed that the commission suspended the chief executive before he eventually resigned in November last year, and ordered the charity to appoint new trustees.

It also summarised the charity's reasons for declining CRB checks, which are intended to protect children and vulnerable people: the trustees did not accept that the disabled people who used its services were 'vulnerable' because of their disabilities, it said.

The report did not include details of the Invest to Save Budget grant or other funding, which were brought to Third Sector's attention by an informant who wanted to remain anonymous. The informant said she and others were concerned by the waste of public money. "This was an excellent service that failed because of the actions of a weak board," she said.

She added: "If it had come out that the council was funding an organisation working with vulnerable adults, and potentially with children, that refused to do CRB checks and employed a convicted sex offender, there would have been an outcry."

The commission report did not mention that the former chief executive was fined in 2000 for an offence of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception, even though this offence was mentioned in a letter from the commission to the former chief executive when it suspended him.

Ian Loynes, treasurer of HCODP, declined to comment when contacted by Third Sector, as did chair Hazel Peasley, who is on sick leave. The former chief executive also declined to comment. His solicitor asked for his name not to be published on the grounds that it could threaten his safety.

Felicity Hindson, Hampshire County Council's executive member for adult social care, said the authority had withdrawn funding as soon as it discovered the charity had breached its contract.

A Treasury spokesman said an evaluation of the project showed that money awarded for the initial three-year start-up period had been "used as intended". He said that from that point onwards the project was expected to secure sustainable funding.

A commission spokeswoman said: "We cannot comment on any information that is not in the inquiry report."

WHAT DID THE WEBSITE DO?

Equipmentdirect.org.uk was a project to help disabled and older people to find and rate equipment that enabled them to live independently.

It also enabled them, or their carers, to fill in online forms requesting an assessment of their needs from their local social services departments.

The website was conceived as a Hampshire-wide project, but it was hoped that statutory agencies elsewhere would later pay fees to use the self-referral service, making the site sustainable.

The Treasury supported the project because it brought together public and voluntary sector organisations in a project led by disabled people.The Treasury evaluation in 2007 said: "The project has proved that the statutory and voluntary sectors can work together effectively to meet a common goal and save public money."

HCODP received £1.1m  from the Invest to Save Budget, a Treasury and Cabinet Office initiative, to develop Equipmentdirect.org.uk

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