An HIV charity that serves west Hertfordshire could be forced to close its doors in a matter of weeks because it can no longer afford to stay in operation.
St Albans-based the Crescent provides care and support to those affected by HIV on an in-house and outreach basis.
But it’s been plunged into financial uncertainty ever since Hertfordshire County Council withdrew all of the charity’s funding in June 2011.
The money has instead been diverted to Herts Aid, a separate HIV support service, which is based in the east of the county in Ware.
The Crescent’s Head of Operations Iain Murtagh has repeatedly criticised the decision, citing how a large number of his charity’s 300 users would struggle with the increased journey time: “The transport links between east and west are appalling and always have been.
“By bus it can take 4 – 6 hours to do a round trip from [St Albans] to Ware, so if you don’t drive you have no real chance of support. This is why two agencies existed in Hertfordshire for the last 25 years, to enable people to have a choice of provider, and be able to access this easily”.
The council claims it’s focusing on a single county-wide HIV care service, in order to provide “effective and efficient support” to those living with the virus.
However, Mr Murtagh believes it’s actually because the other organisation has substantially higher running costs, and is also benefiting from favoritism. Hertfordshire Councillor Sally Newton is the chair of trustees with former responsibility for adult care services, and also chairs other related health boards on the council.
Meanwhile, in a Hertfordshire County Council meeting on 17 July, Councillor Colette Wyatt-Lowe said: “We cannot afford to fund multiple charities to provide the same service as this would mean decreasing the amount we spend in other vital areas – such as support for people with learning difficulties, people with dementia, and recovery services for people with mental health problems – all residents equally as vulnerable as those suffering with HIV.”
However, Mr Murtagh claims that central government has already provided the necessary funding to keep the Crescent running without cutting support elsewhere in the county: “The money allocated to [the council] by central govt for HIV/AIDS support is increasing year on year. There is no need to cut anything”.
Mr Murtagh also says the council is diverting funds from the earmarked HIV/AIDS support grant in order to “prop up” other services and states that Councillor Colette Wyatt-Lowe’s remarks already prove this point.
In response a Hertfordshire County Council spokesperson said: “The Crescent’s contract to provide HIV services in the west of Hertfordshire expired in June 2011 and was not renewed. The joint sexual health strategy we developed with the NHS identified the need for a single county-wide service to provide effective and efficient support for people living with HIV in Hertfordshire. Herts Aid – a local charity with more than 20 years’ experience – now provides this service on behalf of the county council and the NHS.
“The way in which the contract was awarded was independently investigated, at The Crescent’s request, by the Local Government Ombudsman. The Ombudsman was satisfied that we followed a proper process.
“It’s important to stress that there is support available across Hertfordshire for anyone living with HIV, funded by the county council and the NHS. If the Crescent does close, everyone currently receiving support from the Crescent will be able to receive support from Herts Aid instead.”
Those who use the Crescent are said to be “frightened” about the future, and Mr Murtagh is now running the charity as a volunteer – the organisation’s reserves have now been expired.
He says grimly: “when I finally run out of cash to pay the gas bill, or my savings have gone, we will have to close entirely”.