Observations And Comments
“The Vince Hines Foundation,
Connexions London West and
The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.”
‘Partners in Conflicts’.
he contents of a recent *Community Briefing and Update, dated 10th October 2005, clearly demonstrated that there have been serious legal tussles in the High Courts between two partners, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Council (LA) and the Vince Hines Foundation, a thirty year old registered charity operating in the borough.
Both partners shared and contributed to the ideals of the current Labour Government’s policy of ‘Strategic Partnership’ at local grass roots. The success of this partnership must be demonstrated by the ease and productivity of which the statutory, business, community and voluntary sectors work together on the basis of mutual respect.
Equality of partners
At the introduction of the ‘local strategic partnership’ concept –it was asked ‘will some partners be more equal than others?’
Both the LA and the Charity were locked in the Connexions London West (CXLW) Partnership since 2002. Both served on the CXLW Local Management Committee during that period. Both parties were Connexions service providers from the same date.
In addition, during 2000-2001, before CXLW came ‘alive’, the Charity organised successful pre-Connexions pilot projects, in conjunction with Capital Careers Ltd and others, which contributed to the gaining of Central Government funding to launch Connexions London West Partnership Ltd in September 2002.
What changed the equilibrium between the partners was the dissolution of CXLW Ltd. All Connexions service contracts were novated on 1st November 2004, to local authorities within the respective LA administrative boundaries. In this case, Brent, Ealing, Hounslow, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hammersmith and Fulham. This was done under a new ‘confederation model’. The LA would now manage all Connexions funding from the Department of Education and Employment. The Vince Hines Foundation held one of the Connexions service contracts, since 2002.
The balance of power now changed. The LAs have become partners and funding overseers. This new situation created conflicts of interest. The LA is now able to assert undue influences over long time partners. In the case of the London Borough of Hammersmith Council, this influence resulted in the termination of the Charity Connexions service contract. Maybe that was not how the government intended the system to work. However, in reality, it was translated like that in practical application.
Original disputes between the partners
Before the termination, there had been serious disputes between the LA and the Charity, relating to the regularity of grant payments. The Charity gained concessions from the late CXLW Ltd to receive its payments quarterly in advance. This was supported by the Government Office of London (GoL), which is the overall supervising agency on behalf of the Department of Education and Employment, for Connexions activities. The policy of quarterly advanced payments, from public funds, to the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS), is Central Government policy, in line with cross cutting programmes developed during 2003.
The LA insisted on ignoring the government‘s policy, and decided to pay the Charity, in arrears, on a monthly basis. This created budgetary complications for the Charity, as arrangements were made on the basis of advance payments and that had been the case since 2002.
Acrimony overflowed into monitoring report
The apparent acrimony generated from this dispute between both partners, seemed to have overflowed into a quarterly monitoring visit to the Charity’s premises, during February 2005. This visit would have been the first undertaken by the LA since the contract novation in November 2004. The monitoring was done by the very same individuals with whom the Charity was in hot dispute. The individual Council Officers, both relatively new to Connexions and the Borough, produced a less than accurate monitoring report on the work of the Charity. CXLW Ltd pervious monitoring reports, from 2002 onwards, were basically congratulatory to the Charity’ work. The LA monitoring report of 1st March 2005, on the other hand, was an oddball, which the Charity rebutted strongly. The rebuttals were presented to the Connexions Local Management Committee in 16th March 2005.
Termination of Contract
The LA terminated the Charity contract in April 2005 primarily because ‘the Charity did not produce the information requested, namely details on Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks.’ The termination was unexpected and blocked other connexions funding to the charity, including those of Positive Activities for Young People (PAYP) and the U-Project, managed by Lifetime Careers in 2005. The LA decision was a serious and potentially destructive blow to the Charity and its work in Hammersmith and Fulham. According to the contract, at least 180 days notice must be given for the termination of the contract.
The LA concerns centred on CRB checks on staff and volunteers who have regular access to children at the Charity. The LA believed that these concerns were shared by CXLW Ltd. The LA hinted that it might have had unsubstantiated complaints in August 2004 and March 2005, and further argued that it had a duty to ensure that CRB checks were carried out in order to avoid being sued successfully for negligence. On this basis, the LA insisted that all the Charity’s Management Committee members and Trustees should be CRB checked, and if those checks were not made, the contract would be terminated.
The Charity disagreed strongly and rejected that position, because all management committee members, trustees, staff and volunteers do not have regular access to children. To request a blanket CRB check on all was unreasonable and unfair. The Charity pointed out that it received no complaint during its period as a member of the Partnership and that those within the Charity who needed to be CRB checked were checked at an enhanced level for the purposes concerned. In addition, the Charity’s Centre was checked and registered to accept and counter sign individual applications for CRB checks.
CRB documented evidence
The Charity provided independent CRB documented evidence, including CRB unique and verifiable reference numbers, to the effect that individuals concerned were CRB checked at an enhanced level. The Charity further pointed out that the Charity’s staff received child protection training from the LA Social Services Department. That the Charity’s operations were proper, transparent, above board and well supported by members of the community. There was no evidence of wrong doings in the past and present and contractual obligations were reasonably complied with.
The Charity’s position is that the LA insistence on the issue of CRB checks, given that evidence were produced of those concerned implied that there were wrong doings. This had the potential of violating provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 1998, Article 6, which clearly stipulated that an individual must be told what they are accused of and given the right to defend his/herself
‘Unfair, unreasonable’, disproportionate and inconsistent.
The Charity argued that the LA action was ‘unfair, unreasonable’, disproportionate and inconsistent and must not be allowed to stand. In June 2005, 1500 plus local residents signed petition calling on their elected representatives to quash the decision. Many petitioners were young people, who for the first time, exercising democratic means within the civic process. They got in return, as it were, a slap in the face. Their elected representatives had not so far delivered. All elected members of the LA were kept fully informed by e-mail about the issues involved.
The Charity approached the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) to intervene in the dispute. The LGO said, because the matter involved contracts between the parties, the Act precluded LGO intervention, and advised that the matter be taken to the law courts for resolution.
Warning of Legal action ignored
A pre-warning notification letter was sent to the LA informing of imminent legal action. The LA ignored this. As a result, there was no alternative but to apply to the Royal Courts of Justice for a Judicial Review of the Council’s decision, on the basis that it was ‘unfair and unreasonable’. A request was made for the Court to quash the LA decision. Legal papers were filed in the Administrative Court on 15th August 2005, and served on the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (Defendant) on 16th August 2005.
The LA and Connexions Management ineffectual
The Charity is no stranger to the Borough. It served Hammersmith and Fulham residents for thirty years, in addition to being an effective Partner of the Borough Partnership Group of service providers.
The Connexions Local Management Committee was ineffectual in this matter. The LA Labour Party Cabinet members also failed in their duties to residents. They should have been more investigative and evidence orientated. They should have focused on the facts, courageous and demand more accountability from the officers concerned in this matter.
Cabinet members should have been more open minded in taking on board the views of the Charity. They should have been able to manage the disputes more effectively and so avoid escalation to the High Courts.
The Community & Voluntary Sector Network also failed, given that a ‘Compact’ between the LA and the VCS was developed to assist in circumstances of this type. Perhaps they were cowed by the probable assumption that their funds could have been threatened by any active advocacy on behalf of a fellow member of the Community & Voluntary Sector Network, in search of the truth.
It is difficult to say, at this stage, what role race and politics played in the reluctance by the various bodies to act decisively in this matter. What is certain, many local residents who depended on the Vince Hines Foundation’s services will have to wait a little longer before they are able to once again benefit fully from the same. Their petitions clearly demonstrated that they appreciated and love the service from which they benefited.
‘David’ and ‘Goliath’ syndrome
Here is a story, if nothing else, which symbolises the biblical, ‘David’ and ‘Goliath’ syndrome. Goliath has deep pocket and strong armour. David has little but nothing, except an irrefutable historical commitment to support those who are less able within a modern and enlightened multi-cultural society. Like all the Goliaths of this world, they lack foresight and vision, to realise the subsequent consequences of their actions on the lives of ordinary people. ‘Duty of care’, underpinned by respect for the individuals, seems foreign and even alien to them.