‘Speak Out’ survey reveals children and disabled services hanging by a thread

A ‘speak-out’ survey of community, voluntary and housing workers has exposed services to the most vulnerable people in society as “hanging by a thread”.  The UNISON survey of almost 3,000 workers from across the UK, uncovers dangerously underfunded services leading to hardship and exposing children and the disabled to risk.

UNISON is calling on the Government to have a major rethink in its attitude to the third sector.  Its sink or swim philosophy is leading to a struggle for survival. Almost unnoticed by the public, many charities have become increasingly financially dependent on winning contracts from the public sector.  
As austerity has bitten, funding for these contracts has been squeezed to breaking point. Staff morale dips, low pay is endemic, leading to rising levels of personal debt and long-term financial hardship for many in the sector. 
The union is warning that whilst charities are reputable and trusted by the public, they do not have a magic wand, so cuts are putting vulnerable people at risk.

Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, said:
“This survey must ring alarm bells in Whitehall. The Government should give charities the means to do what they do best and that is to improve lives and care for people.  The whole sector is reaching breaking point and Ministers need to wake up to the damage and misery that their austerity drive is creating.  
“The voluntary sector attracts many thousands of dedicated, hardworking staff, who know that they won’t be paid big bonus salaries but who have a right to expect a fair deal for their clients and themselves. Instead many workers are bearing the brunt of the austerity drive, through damaging cuts to their pay and conditions.
“Charities increasingly rely on winning public sector contracts just to survive.  Private companies use them as ‘bid candy’ in an effort to improve their chances of winning more public sector business. The whole contracting-out process means that accountability for public services is increasingly at arm’s-length, and this has led to public fears and damaging reports over the quality of services to children and the disabled.”

A worker, providing respite services for children with autism, challenging behaviour and profound disabilities, said:

“Due to financial pressures we have to combine more vulnerable children with children with challenging behaviour. It creates an unsafe environment for both the child and the staff. There have been medication and other errors due to time pressure.”
A disability worker in the East Midlands reported:

“Users have less chance to go out, have to wear second hand clothes, have no transport, and blind people now have to buy their own white sticks when they lose them.” 
A housing worker from the West Midlands revealed that:

“Fewer aids and adaptations are being installed, leaving people at risk in their homes and communities due to budget cuts.” 
The union is blaming the Government’s austerity drive for pushing people out of the sector, as it is increasingly difficult to provide even the basic help and support that clients need.

The survey is available here

Services for children 
 72% are concerned that children may be slipping through the safety net. 
High risk areas: 
15% do not have enough time to monitor children and follow up concerns of neglect or abuse. 
14% report an increasing risk in administering medications. 
36% do not have enough time to prepare risk assessments and support plans. 
55% can now provide fewer resources (such as toys). 
52% provide fewer outside activities (such as visits). 

Services for disabled people 
67% say clients are being left at risk because their care package has been reduced. 
46% are seeing more clients moved into “the community” without proper support. 
59% report that service users are becoming more socially isolated, and 67% of these are concerned that this results in self-harm and depression. 
48% of staff report less time with each service user. 
41% are not able to provide clients with all the help they need. 
43% believe that less frequent care reviews are leading to inadequate support. 
41% report delays in replacing faulty equipment. 
57% are concerned about high staff turnover.

Housing services
UNISON has tens of thousands of members employed by housing associations, providing social housing to those in need and often providing social care to the tenants as well. Austerity has reduced house building with a 63% cut in capital financing available for new social housing. 
73% report more tenants are falling behind with their rent 
35% said the top reason was the bedroom tax. 

The next most common reasons were: 
– complex benefit changes 
– the rising cost of living 
– under-employment and un-employment 
– financial hardship. 
50% have seen an increase in tenants being evicted or forced to move because of financial pressures. 
37% have seen a reduction in non-statutory services (such as play schemes and community centres). 
58% report more debt management advisors being employed by their housing 
43% report a rise in anti-social behaviour from tenants.

Rights and advocacy services
 say it is getting harder for clients to get representation and advocacy, as well as basic advice. 
77% say clients are forced to phone up or go online rather than get help face-to-face. 
57% say services being centralised, so clients have to travel further to get help. 
77% identified specific groups that are losing out – the main ones being disabled, elderly and black and minority ethnic people. 
38% of staff said their employers were prioritising services on contracts to public bodies over campaigning and advocacy. 

Other services 
Workers in the many other services in the community and voluntary sector also expressed their concern about being able to do a good job. 
43% of respondents said they had less time with each service user. 
Only 40% said they were able to provide service users with all the help they need.

Impact on the workforce
 report that their take-home pay has decreased 
24% of staff don’t get the living wage
The average level of personal debt is £2,200
5% have four or more jobs
9% are on a zero hours contract

Note: As long ago as November 2011, the Third Sector Research Centre found that “Charities are increasingly dependent on commercial revenue, and this is a substitute for grants and donations” (www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/research/economic-social-impact/the-marketisation-of-charities.aspx <http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/research/economic-social-impact/the-marketisation-of-charities.aspx