Back in early 2011, as some of you may remember, we had our funding pulled after almost 25 years of providing prevention, education, testing and support services for those living with or affected by HIV, and the wider population of Hertfordshire. This was not the result of a funding cut, more from a desire to transfer funding to another organisation chaired by an employee of lead funding body Hertfordshire County Council (HCC).
This decision was taken without consultation, and resulted in a service which does not meet the needs of those living with HIV in west Hertfordshire, where the majority of those affected, and also the majority or residents, in this affluent county reside.
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Hertfordshire is a large county just outside London with a population of 1,119,800 (Source HCC census data) It has a rather disjointed transport network which makes it very easy to travel north to south in the county but not east to west.
For this reason historically there had been two agencies providing HIV services in the county, one east, the other west (the Crescent). As mentioned the decision to transfer all services to the east of the county was without consultation, and seemingly for no reason, other than the desire of the other agency to take on the service countywide.
The Crescent has been fighting this decision ever since on behalf of those 300 or so people who rely on us for support in the west of Hertfordshire alone. We have gained support from a number of notable sources, including Peers such as Lord Fowler and Lord Rennard.
Also stars from the stage and screen such as John Sessions, CJ de Mooi and Stephen Fry have all waded in to help. We even made it to the House of Lords last April to discuss this matter in person with the likes of Lords Fowler and Lord Rennard, Baroness Jolly, MP’s and other notables.
Regrettably, though the support is ongoing and very helpful, without funds we are struggling, so much so that we had to lay off all staff at the end of August and the service is now being run by volunteers like me using our own money to keep the doors open.
Following coverage of the situation in the satirical magazine Private Eye things began to change a little with HCC appearing to be more concerned about the situation and a number of meetings took place between The Crescent and HCC officials.
We were invited to tender for the new contract for services due to start in April which we duly did. We passed all stages of the prequalification process. The process is designed to establish if we had the ability to perform the role of support agency accurately and efficiently, with appropriate skills and procedures in place.
Unfortunately HCC decided that as we had been spending more than we had as income for the previous two years they we were an unacceptable financial risk. This is hardly surprising given they were responsible for removing our income in the first place. It was also something of which they were aware before inviting us to apply.
We therefore see this as yet another attempt by HCC to be seen to do the right thing whilst not really having any intention of doing so. It means that we are continuing to support those in west Herts using our own money and continuing to work as volunteers.
We have been fortunate to get some small donations from local County Councillors from their locality budgets which clearly indicates that not all within HCC agree with their stance. These donations have enabled us to pay basic utilities but little else, and so we are still carrying on in a voluntary capacity only.
The demand for our services has never been greater, however with dwindling resources and relying on volunteers alone, many of the services we offered have now been suspended.
In particular the testing services so vital in the struggle to get those undiagnosed tested and into a care regime have now stopped. This is primarily because of a lack of appropriately trained staff as a minimum of two people need to be present to undertake the process.
On World Aids Day 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron called for more to be done to halt the increase in HIV transmissions in the UK as figures released show that transmissions between gay men had reached an all time high and that almost half (48%) of new cases had been acquired through heterosexual contact.
However our appeals for help over the last two years sent to Mr Cameron and his deputy Mr Clegg have seemingly fallen on deaf ears. The response has generally been that “it is a local decision, they cannot get involved” or another excuse “it is a local decision and up to the local people to take the local authority to task and hold them accountable.”
Appeals to the Department of Health have brought similar responses. Publically everyone in a position of authority seem to be saying the right things, but when it actually boils down to it nothing happens to help struggling long established organisationslike The Crescent.
Meanwhile, as can clearly be seen, cases in vulnerable groups are on the increase, the heterosexual community are for the first time accounting for almost half of the new cases and a further 25– 26,000 people are predicted to be undiagnosed at the moment.
If this trend continues the progress made in fighting HIV in the UK will be undone. Do we really want that? Currently it is estimated that 1 in 20 Gay men in the UK are affected and this rises to 1 in 12 in London itself.
With prevalence so high in London, areas like west Herts will be affected similarly. Towns and cities like Watford and St Albans are prime commuter locations 15 - 20 minutes away from central London. It clearly indicates a need for more support, detection, care, and education services available in such areas. However the trend seems to be to reduce or remove these entirely.
So what next for the Crescent? We will fight on, we are still endeavouring to obtain more funding, there have been some very generous local people who are helping, but for any sort of hope for us we need to broaden our number of donors.
We continue to get coverage in national and local media, in particular our participation in the Stand Tall Get Snapped exhibition where 30 HIV positive people came forward to tell their story in an exhibition which ran in a prominent central London location from World Aids Day though to last week. A link to one of the articles featuring a Crescent Trustee, Rachel, is here.
As mentioned we were all made redundant in August 2012 and therefore have been working as volunteers since then, but this regrettably is not sustainable as none of us have a huge amount of savings to fall back on.
Personally if it hadn’t been for a small inheritance from my Grandmother who passed on recently I wouldn’t have been able to get this far. As a former St Albans resident, retired headmistress and mothers union member I know that Nan would approve of the use, indeed we discussed the issues shortly before she died inearly 2012.
So another year has passed, we are still here, but only just, we still provide training and education services, drop in services, social groups and so on. However without some real help of a financial nature we will be lost, and those hundreds of people we support will have to fend for themselves. Not to mention those who without education will be unaware of how they can avoid HIV and therefore be at a greater risk than they need be.
It is estimated that in medication costs alone one new diagnosis today will cost the NHS approximately £260-300,000. This is without the social care cost, or considering the impact on the individual and their family. £300,000 would fund us for around three years, not hard to see that even if we only prevent one transmission a year we are saving money for cash strapped economy.
The trouble is no-one seems to have grasped this point yet. Our fear is that by the time this is finally realised it will be too late for us, and too late for countless others who have unnecessarily become an HIV statistic.
Worldwide we are on the cusp of beginning to win the fight in reducing infection rates and deaths. However if we continue to allow agencies like the Crescent to close, all that progress will be lost and HIV will begin to win. Who wants that? Not me, nor apparently our political leaders. Words are cheap, action is what is needed.
Herts County Council maintained they couldn’t afford to continue funding two organisations, however a local newspaper (St Albans Review) reports that HCC have dished out over 30 million in the last two years in so called “golden handshakes” to staff, with one (presumed to be the former Chief Executive) walking away with £295,000 last year, and another 3 taking a share of £562,000
In comparison our funding was less than £100,000 pa, small change in comparison really, isn’t it!
We will fight on for as long as possible, we have more discussions ongoing with potential funders but if anyone reading this is feeling able to assist, all donations of any size will be very welcome.
In the UK this can be via Vodafone Just Text Giving by texting CRES19 plus £1, £2 etc up to £5,after that £10 as a maximum to 70070, or via our website www.thecrescent.org.uk using PayPal, or by sending a cheque or postal order to The Crescent, 19 Russell Avenue, St Albans Hertfordshire AL3 5ES.