Eaves was a Lambeth-based charity that had been helping victims of sexual and domestic violence in London and around the UK since 1977.
More recently, in 2003, it launched The Poppy Project, fighting to enforce the rights of women smuggled into the UK by sex traffickers. It was so successful in its first twelve months that the Government commissioned Eaves to provide the service for the next nine years.
In 2007 its chief executive Denise Marshall was awarded an OBE for the charity’s work – but in 2011 she handed it back, appalled at the cuts her organisation had suffered since the election of the coalition government the year before. Finally, in October last year – and just months after Marshall’s untimely death – the charity was forced to close its doors.
Last month, I spoke to Heather Harvey, Eaves’ former Research and Development Manager. She believes that Eaves lost its funding because of the climate of austerity, because of the new Government’s ideological leanings – and because they dared to challenge the administration.
“The Poppy Project launched a lot of legal challenges, a lot of judicial reviews,” she says. “We successfully won appeals for women against the Government, and they didn’t like that. We were showing them up.”
In 2011, soon after Marshall had publicly handed back her OBE, the Poppy Project lost all of its Government funding. A three-year trafficking contract was instead awarded to the Salvation Army.
Harvey says that this was not simply a matter of one equal tender beating another – at the time Eaves estimated that the value of the new contract represented a 60% cut per service user, and even this required the Salvation Army to subsidise the contract by over £1m, something that a small, specialist organisation like Eaves could never do.
“It was about saving money… but it was also part of the Government’s whole ethos of silencing their critics”
Critically, she also tells me that, as she understands it, the Salvation Army do not take on legal challenges in the same way that Eaves did. “We’ve had conversations with Salvation Army workers who’ve said they don’t do legal challenges, they can’t do them,” she says. “But we’ve never been able to get them to put it in writing.”
“I think it was about saving money,” she adds. “… about wanting to shrink the state. But I think it was also part of [the Government’s] whole ethos of silencing their critics.” This is a view she believes has been borne out by the introduction of the lobbying act and of “no advocacy” clauses.
The Government then went further. The Poppy Project – still operational thanks to a small amount of funding from the EU – was removed from the Government’s strategic group on trafficking. “Even if we weren’t delivering the contract we should still have been at the table,” Heather says. “We had nearly ten years of experience and were dealing with cases that the state was failing to identify. We had additional intelligence on who the traffickers were, their routes and methods. But they didn’t want to hear it from us.”
She pointed me towards the Baring Report, which has charted, since 2010, the Government’s erosion of the independence of the voluntary sector. It makes for disturbing reading.
Eaves struggled on, but the damage had been done. As the cuts started to hit local councils, they saw the quality of contracts they would normally bid for reduce dramatically, or disappear entirely.
Increasingly tenders offered derisory sums that wouldn’t even cover a project’s overheads
“We had refuges, and when they got re-tendered… we knew that the local authorities (Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea) had cut the financial investment in it so much that we would not be able to offer a quality service,” she says. “So we said right, keep your refuges. In the end they went to Hestia, a housing association with no expertise of violence against women. The very next day they phoned us up and said, ‘we’ve got a woman here and she needs you to go with her to the Housing Department to advocate for her’. That’s the sort of thing that was happening.”
Increasingly tenders offered derisory sums that wouldn’t even cover a project’s overheads. Time and time again, Eaves saw tenders focus primarily on price, rather than quality or track record. Only large, generic organisations with significant reserves could afford to bid, offering sub-standard services that nonetheless ticked a box for local authorities struggling with massive cuts themselves.
Heather admits that towards the end some controversial decisions were made to try to save the charity – including the launch of a social enterprise, which failed. The death of their chief executive was also a huge blow. But by this point the charity was already a fraction of its former size, having gone through repeated rounds of cuts. It was already on the ropes.
“The fatal factor was the broader cuts agenda,” Heather says, “but in particular, within that, this ideological idea around privatisation, localism, commissioning, competitive tendering. That’s really where it went wrong.”