Southall Black Sisters (SBS) have certainly been waging an effective media campaign against Ealing council and its plans to look again at how it spends roughly Â£100K a year helping victims of domestic violence. SBS have been in receipt of a similar sum for a number of years which is effectively about 10% of the council’s current grants budget.
On the one hand the council says they want to commission a more broadly based service with the money that addresses needs across the borough and all communities. On the other SBS say that the money must stay with them. One of the basic chores of being a charity/voluntary organisation is justifying what you do with your grants. The council wants the freedom to decide its priorities and to incentivise the third sector to contribute. SBS don’t want to play the game and they think that they can avoid the process by creating a stink.
The images I have used here come SBS’s Facebook page which has 736 friends. Yesterday Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was writing about them in the Evening Standard and the was a report in the Guardian that the chairman of SBS, one Pragna Patel, has asked David Cameron to intervene.
I went along to the cabinet meeting on 26th February where SBS staged a demo. Various reports have talked about the number of people at this event but I have only seen photos with about 30-odd people in them and I reckon if there had been more people there would have been photos of them! The SBS people who attended the meeting heckled throughout and went loopy when it was agreed to commission this grant and had to be chucked out. Note commissioning in this context means a process whereby you decide as a funding body what your priorities are, you set criteria and ask voluntary bodies to bid against these criteria. The loopiness included shouting out that SBS would send distressed women round to see the cabinet members and generally shouting “racist”. I didn’t write about it at the time because I didn’t understand the situation. Since then I have been doing some research.
At the time I wondered why the cabinet were not more robust in response to SBS. The answer is that they don’t want to queer the commissioning process by voicing opinions about the participants. In writing to David Cameron Patel was being particularly cynical. SBS would be all over the council with judicial review if for instance Cameron asked the council to intervene against SBS. SBS are using the cabinet’s respect of the process as an opportunity to scream their case far and wide without anyone rebutting it. As I am not part of the cabinet and am a mere backbench, scrutiny councillor who is in no way involved in the decision making process I am at liberty to comment.
My opinions of SBS is not particularly high. In all of the verbiage they have produced they have failed to provide any evidence whatsoever that they help women in Ealing today. They talk about a grand history and some big cases but there is nothing to indicate they are an effective deliverer of local services. They do not mention how many people they help, any kind of breakdown of these people and whether the helpers are employees or volunteers. There is all kinds of evidence that they are a very small but effective lobbying and activist organisation – such organisations are not the natural recipients of council grants to encourage voluntary groups.
I decided to dig out what evidence I could, starting off at Companies House and then off to the Charities Commission. A quick look at their accounts for last year indicates that they treat Ealing’s grant as unrestricted funds, ie running costs. Last year Â£99,551 (92%) of their unrestricted funds of Â£108,787 came from Ealing council, The rest of their income Â£156,312 came from restricted funds, ie grants which had to be spent on specific activities. Of their total income of Â£265,099 last year some Â£119,216 (45%) went on staffing costs. Â£36,000 (14% of their income) paid the rent. Only they own their premises through an organisation called the Southall Black Sisters Trust.
The SBS Trust seems to be a vehicle to achieve two purposes:
- to accept grants given by bodies that only give money to charities and recycle them to SBS Limited its operating arm, fair enough
- to hold a freehold property bought for Â£353,029 in 2003/4.
Whilst it is not strange to hold property like this, it is a sensible way to prevent a cock up by the operating arm from causing the loss of the asset, it does look like SBS Limited is taking money off Ealing to pay its rent to SBS Trust which in turn allows it to pay interest on a loan (Â£197,975 from Triodos Bank to fund purchase of property at 21 Avenue Road Southall) and build up its reserves. Ealing ends up buying a building that SBS owns and endowing it! That is fine if that is what Ealing wants but I suspect it intended its cash to be used to directly help women in Ealing now. The rent on its own is 36% of Ealing’s grant.
Going back to SBS Limited staffing costs were Â£119,216 last year. Of this the Management Committee (= 9 “members of Southall Black Sisters”) get remuneration of Â£82,714, or 69% of the total.
Pragna Patel variously calls herself chair, member and or founder of SBS. She is definitely the boss. As well as sitting on the 9 member management committee of the limited company she is one of the four trustees of the trust. Last year she received payments of Â£35,675 from SBS Limited a rise of 64% on the previous year.
Ultimately Pragna Patel gets 36% of Ealing’s grant to SBS so whoever else she is an advocate for she is certainly an advocate for herself.