The Government has been telling us long enough that it intends to hand over more and more welfare and support services to religious groups and now it has made a start.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Eaves Housing charity that pioneered specialist services for victims of sexual trafficking, providing refuge and therapeutic support for hundreds of abused and exploited women has had its funding withdrawn. Its work has been handed to the Salvation Army with a Government contract of £6m.
Abigail Stepnitz, national co-ordinator for the Poppy Project said that, according to their calculations, the new contract would reduce funding by 60% per victim. This meant it would be impossible to offer anything more than a limited service to victims, many of whom need intensive psychological support, she said. "We are concerned for the women in our care. We really do not know how we are going to be able to offer appropriate care for these women."
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said Eaves Housing "had done a very good job" in recent years, but the Salvation Army had put in a stronger bid for the contract, which has been widened to provide support for trafficked men as well as women. "Eaves are upset and it's not great for them, but it's much better for victims of trafficking," said the spokesperson.
The Salvation Army, which states that one of its main charitable aims is "to reach people with the Christian gospel through evangelism", said its religious underpinning was not a factor. "We are a faith-based organisation and we are motivated by our faith, but it's really important that we provide holistic care for all those who come under the auspices of our care."
The Poppy Project was held up as an exemplary project in a study by the analysts New Philanthropy Capital in a 2008 report. It said: "Many of the experts that NPC consulted felt it was important that trafficked women be given support from specialist, women-only organisations with a track record in working with victims of extreme sexual violence and therefore have a deep understanding of what women need."
In a letter to the Guardian, Professor Liz Kelly, Co-chair, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Vivienne Hayes, Chief executive, Women's Resource Centre, wrote:
We are deeply concerned that this appears to be an ideological move to award public-sector contracts to religious groups in order to bring them into the "big society", rather than an evidenced decision based on the interests of such women. There is a wealth of evidence to show that women who have experienced violence want a specialist service that understands their needs.
We question how the government will ensure that religious organisations will not discriminate against women and make moral judgments about their situations and needs. How will the government make sure that human rights standards to which they are committed are fulfilled? For example, how will the Salvation Army respond to lesbians or women who need abortion advice? Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "The awarding of this contract is not only a means of saving money, it is also an ideological gesture towards the so-called faith communities which have been putting immense pressure on the Government to hand over services to them. We have no idea whether the Salvation Army will run this service in a non-evangelical manner – we have to take their word for it and wait for complaints. It is entirely wrong to put such a sensitive service, which will also have to serve the needs of women who are not Christian, into the hands of such an evangelical organisation."
Meanwhile, Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, warns that human trafficking could increase substantially during the Olympic Games in 2012. She said London could become a "magnet" for traffickers unless ministers launch an urgent crackdown.
She said "The Government must wake up to the risk that traffickers will seek to profit from the 2012 Games and take action to make sure this event does not make the situation worse." The Government has only recently opted-in to the EU Human Trafficking Directive—which seeks to combat the trade in sex slaves."