If you hadn’t spotted in the press already, there is a war going on over funding for HIV services in Hertfordshire, with one service receiving 100% of the funding from the combined service of Hertfordshire County Council and NHS Hertfordshire, leaving the other struggling for over a year to maintain the service it has promised to over 300 people living with HIV in the area. As head of the Crescent, the underdog in this battle, we were keen to ask Iain Murtagh for his side of the story.

According to Iain, The Crescent ‘received just short of £200k [per annum]‘ and that they, ‘have maintained as near as possible a complete service using a mixture of paid staff and volunteers’ – which is good news. Although it isn’t as positive as it seems, as Iain explains: ‘with all staff on a three day week (some working the extra days as volunteers) it will not be long before we lose more staff – we have lost over half already.’ Which isn’t good news, and it gets worse: ‘the inevitable impact this will have on the service will bring it to the point where it will be impossible to continue.’

Hang on, let’s back up a second. In most areas of the country there are multiple HIV support groups and charities that focus on specific groups or geographic locations for their services. In London, this means that you have groups like CHIVA, who focus on children and young people, but then you have groups like South London HIV Partnership who work specifically in South London. It is the same throughout the country, and Hertfordshire is no different. As Iain explains: ‘for the last 20+ years we have provided services alongside Herts Aid covering the entire county between us.’

‘The reason for this is the transport links from east to west in Hertfordshire are very poor, meaning those in the west would have difficulty accessing a service in the east, and vice versa’, which is something we can attest to – travelling in Hertfordshire is only possible via car. We agree with Iain that, ‘there should also be an element of choice for people accessing support’, however the problem seems a little bit more in-depth. As the service provider who received the financial support, Herts Aid, that The Crescent used to get do not offer the same amount of support in the Western areas of the county. Iain explained that if The Crescent is shut, anyone who lives in the Western Hertfordshire area will only receive: ’8 hours of open access support a week, (we currently provide 37hrs+) whereas those in the east have 35 + hours.’

So we had to ask what makes The Crescent different from other HIV support groups and services, to which we were told by Iain that: ‘The Crescent is a truly member led service’, and he went on to explain that, ‘every member has voting rights, with the ability to attend board meetings, become a board member, or employee’ – a truly for-the-members-by-the-members organisation.

Iain Murtagh, Head of The Crescent

Since their funding has been removed from the Crescent and given to Herts Aid, Iain described a fundraising campaign, Healthy Futures, hosted by Lord Rennard and Baroness Jolly, with Lord Fowler. It’s a campaign that has gained support from John Sessions amongst others, and has been subsidised by applications and a contract with Buckinghamshire County Council. Is this a viable option for the future though? ‘Unfortunately the current financial climate means that there are a great many organisations chasing an ever decreasing pot of money’, we were told, ‘eventually it will come to a point where some smaller agencies will not survive simply because there is not enough money available.’ This will obviously impact upon those in remote areas of the country as – ‘a more national approach will naturally lose local focus, and will not necessarily be able to adapt to specific requirements, such as those that exist in Hertfordshire with East to West transport, for example.’

What was the reason for this transfer of wealth? It, ‘remains somewhat of a mystery’, according to Iain, although there have been ‘many over the last 18 months’, however these have ‘not held water.’ Originally it was suggested that performance played a part, but: ‘it was revealed that HCC [Hertfordshire County Council] do not hold any performance information for either the Crescent or Herts Aid for at least the preceding four years.’ Apparently Colette Wyatt-Lowe, the Executive Panel Member for Adult Care Services went on record to say: ‘they could not afford to fund us because if they did it would mean removing funding from other services such as mental health or dementia care.’ To which Iain responded: ‘this suggests that they are using the funding meant for HIV/AIDS support elsewhere now that it is no longer ring fenced.’

The idea of ring-fenced funding has been brought into the discussion before - ‘the National Aids Trust warned this would happen if the funding was no longer ring fenced’, meaning that if the funding is no longer put to one side then it will be used elsewhere. ‘It seems it is already the case, and soon this will be a nationwide issue if the indicators in the report are anything to go by’, Iain explained.

What was discussed as being ‘a more cynical view’ by Iain proves to be something slightly more interesting, as a quick Google search proves that a councillor for HCC is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees for Herts Aid, as well as being on several health committees. As Iain explained: ‘The fact that no tender took place, nor any meaningful consultation with those affected, before the decision was taken to merely award the contract to Herts Aid has fuelled more speculation on this subject’, and that, ‘whatever the reason it certainly was not a fair or open process at all.’ Either way, there is no bitterness as, ‘the County Council chose this method of service delivery’, regardless of the situations.

About the future, Iain told us that The Crescent: ‘will continue to campaign and support our members for as long as possible. Hopefully our funding applications will come through in time.’ So we wish him and the rest of The Crescent luck.

Thanks to Iain for the pictures, and for more information on The Crescent check out their website.