By Raymona Crozier
On Friday 21st November, the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, situated on Donegall Street, welcomed Northern Ireland’s media into their humble abode in order to name and shame certain factions of the civil service in relation to withdrawing crucial funding from the organisation.
In light of recent events in the university area, The Gown were among the first media teams to arrive at the press conference and nab front row seats to hear this exclusive government leak.
The past week has seen an influx of interest in the centre’s story due to the screening of a specific BBC documentary on Wednesday night. This documentary referred to the misleading information that was provided by civil servants, which in turn led to a government minister withdrawing much needed funding. The proposed incorrect information revealed in an internal memo relates to certain cash withdrawals by the centre, and claims that these “were not recorded in the organisation’s financial records.” These vicious claims were denounced by the centre’s co-director Eileen Calder, who viewed them as a “deliberate lie” which “misrepresented” the centre and the staff.
When viewing the memo, dated from the 13th June 2006, it is clearly stated that the main issue for withdrawing core funding is in “light of its (the centre’s) non-compliance with governance and accounting requirements for the receipt of Governmental grants.” However, Eileen Calder stressed that this was a provable lie, as the department knew exactly what money had been extracted and for what purpose, as it had been recorded in various financial documentation. This has also been backed by Sean Mulhern from the European Unit of DHSS, who stated that every unit was recorded and accounted for, “even down to a 27p stamp.”
However, this issue of accounts is not the only problem that has consequently arisen from the DHSS as controversial. Other matters include the amount of evaluations, or reviews and verifications (as they have been disguised as by the department), that have occurred between 2003 and the present day. A spokesperson from the centre underlined how the DHSS were continually trying to find flaws with the centre and its internal functions, and this was the reason for the multitude of visits. In October 2003 PA Consulting were the first to be commissioned by the DHSS to assess and evaluate the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, and this cost taxpayers approximately £11,000. When the findings were published, they suggested reassessing “the current level of Departmental funding and directing it to provide one administrative post.” This option had of course already been explored and requested by the Rape Crisis Centre in a business plan in December 2002. This evidence proves that the civil servants, in the Family Policy Unit in particular, were seemingly blinkered and biased in their vision towards the centre by allowing incorrect and self-appropriated comments to be forwarded to the minister. For the staff in the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, they feel it was these remarks that led directly to the minister’s withdrawal of funding from the centre.
It is hard to discover the motivation behind the withdrawal of funding, as it could consequently lead to the closure of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, which provides such beneficial assistance throughout the local and regional community. Yet, Eileen Calder believes it is connected to getting the centre conveniently out of the way in order to implement an S.A.R.C. (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) regime, which is also a professional and renowned system. However, both the staff of the centre and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, agree that the S.A.R.C. system must be implemented alongside the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, and not as a replacement option. In addition to this, there seems to be an undercurrent suggestion that a personal vendetta has been placed against the centre, due to their outspoken past against issues such as low conviction rates and the lack of personal information they hold on each client that entered the crisis centre.
Eileen Calder has called on First Minister Peter Robinson to intervene.