A petition is to be delivered to Downing Street in protest at the forced closure of Birmingham’s only Black-led community mental health service.
Omnicare, a provider of mental health services to Birmingham’s Black community for a quarter of a century, will close its doors to patients after a two-year battle with Birmingham City Council to stay open. A group of people who have benefited from its services plan to deliver a 500-signature petition to Downing Street on 9 October 2009 in a last ditch attempt to draw attention to the loss of what they argue is a vital service to the community.
Omnicare was set up to plug a care gap that had left many Black mental health patients in Birmingham destitute once they were discharged from hospital. It did so through a ten-bed hostel and a drop-in day centre.
In the course of the two-year fight, allegations have been levelled at the Council by patients, campaigners and staff that it used the death of a hostel resident in September 2007 to damage the organisation’s reputation and to abruptly withdraw funds without consulting the service’s users.
IRR News tried to contact Birmingham City Council’s Third Sector Partnership Team about this allegation but no one was available for comment.
A safeguarding order, issued at the time of the death (and which saw long-term residents moved from the hostel under safety concerns, despite appeals to stay) was recently lifted by the Council. An inquest at the beginning of this year found that the resident concerned died of natural causes and that Omnicare had acted responsibly and could not have prevented the death.
Yet for Omnicare’s General Manager, Jackie McLean, the lifting of the order came too late for an organisation which has, ‘for two years, been living under a cloud’ hindering the possibility of seeking alternative funding from other sources. According to McLean, Birmingham City Council has never been able to adequately explain why it abruptly ceased its funding despite the fact that an investigation into the cause of death was ongoing.
Applying for funding
At the same time as the resident’s death and revocation of funding, the Third Sector Commissioning process was introduced in Birmingham and Omnicare began the application process for funding as a commissioned service provider.
It found the funding application process, replete with a lengthy application form and complicated costing requirements, very hard to deal with. Jackie McLean explains: ‘For a service that has been severely underfunded for years, we struggled with the hefty application. For us to calculate the costing of our services we would have had to get consultants in – something we definitely couldn’t afford. So we had to do it ourselves.’
In September 2008, the application was rejected, with the Council citing the safeguarding order as a factor in their decision. Omnicare’s long-term link as a provider of residential care and support for Birmingham’s mental health patients had been, apparently, finally severed.
Residents take the Council to court
During this two-year period, a group of seven residents and patients, shocked by the threat to a service they trusted and valued, sought their own advice about the legality of the enforced closure.
They took the Council to court and won a stay of execution on the grounds that the Council had failed in its legal duties to conduct a Race Equality Impact Assessment or to take into account the consequences of shutting down Omnicare’s services. Forced into a corner, the Council extended funding until September 2009.
Elvera Wallace, who was a regular client of Omnicare and a member of the group fighting the threatened closure, said at the time of the court case: ‘We felt we had to try and do something to help save the service. We knew what the council were doing to us wasn’t right.’
Matilda MacAttram of Black Mental Health UK, which has campaigned alongside Omnicare, said: ‘Birmingham is the largest metropolitan authority in Europe yet there aren’t any other Black-led mental health services on the ground. The work that Omnicare is doing won’t be replaced once it closes and there is a real fear that its service users will be left destitute.’
MacAttram also commended the work of Omnicare, saying that it provided a unique service where patients were ‘not being demonised, not being restrained. Instead people were being treated with love and compassion.’
Sadly, Birmingham’s only Black-led community mental health service will be forced to close its doors to its 120-registered clients, amidst very real fears for the devastating effect this closure will have on the safety and well-being of its regular users and residents.