SURVIVORS of domestic violence have been left "devastated" after a charity that has helped vulnerable people for more than 25 years lost a £5 million contract.

A petition has been started after Rise lost its contract with Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex County Council and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner during a retendering process.

Within 24 hours of the petition being launched on Saturday, it had received more than 2,500 signatures, enough to secure a debate at a meeting of the full council in Brighton and Hove - with the leader of the council also pledging to meet with the charity.

The petition was started by a woman who was helped by the charity, receiving legal support, a caseworker and therapeutic services for her and her son.

READ MORE: Shock as domestic violence charity loses £5 million contract

She said: "Rise was the only organisation locally that came good for us. It was so frightening.

“The legal system is so patriarchal. I went to court. In court the judge said coercive control is ‘not a thing. I don’t believe in it’.

“This is what women are facing in the family courts and this is why Rise is essential.

“They’re an organisation that believes coercive control exists and do understand the huge impact it has on victims’ lives and their children.”

She said she wanted to know who had signed off on the process, what equality impact assessments were carried out and what weight was given to social value.

Rise was charity set up a domestic violence refuge for the LGBT community and have operated support services for women for the last 26 years.

Councillors shared their shock as the charity will stop running the refuges that it set up and offering support through case officers and helplines from the start of April.

The contract to run a helpline and services, worth £5.1 million over seven years, which have been run by Rise, will instead be split between Victim Support and Stonewater, with the social housing provider taking on the refuge.

Rise intends to keep running its own helpline and is working with the larger national organisations taking over the refuge and support services it used to provide.

The Argus: Rise campaigners at an event before the Covid pandemicRise campaigners at an event before the Covid pandemic

The charity's head of client services Kate Dale said that the public response was overwhelming and moving.

She had felt upset when facing an uncertain future after losing the contract but wanted to assure Rise's long-standing clients that the charity would adapt and that it was not going away.

The trauma therapy service will continue for the next year because this is funded through the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

Rise also has community-based work covered by the National Lottery, and it is looking to renew these sources.

Council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty said he was arranging a meeting with Rise.

Ms Dale said that the charity’s chief executive Jo Gough planned to ask him for a share of the £600,000 announced last week by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to tackle domestic violence.

She said: “This will enable Rise to continue with our long-term relationships.

"The relationships people have with us go back many years and we have taken people through all sorts of highs and lows, from their darkest and most desperate points to running the 8K for us or running the half marathon or speaking at an awareness-raising event.

“People have got really long-standing relationships with Rise and we are their first port of call. We are the first organisation they think of when it comes to domestic abuse.

“They’re not going to stop calling our helpline. We’re not going to stop providing our helpline but we will be funding it ourselves for the next year.”

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The domestic abuse service redesign process started in 2018 and went before Brighton and Hove City Council’s Neighbourhoods, Inclusion, Communities and Equalities Committee.

Former Brighton Labour councillor Emma Daniel, who chaired the committee, was stunned to hear that Rise had lost the contract after the tendering process led by East Sussex County Council.

She worked with officials on a process that was intended to ensure that service users’ views and social value were at the heart of the tendering and procurement process.

Ms Daniel said: “As a political party, we protected domestic violence services from the worst of austerity – not necessarily keeping up with demand but not eaten away.

“We had an understanding of how well regarded Rise is.

“Brighton and Hove’s policy is social value driven. It was in the documents agreed by councillors. I cannot understand how that part of the policy disappeared.”

The Argus: In 2018, members of Rise and other activists marched to draw attention to the toll of domestic violence in the UK and abroadIn 2018, members of Rise and other activists marched to draw attention to the toll of domestic violence in the UK and abroad

There was cross-party support when councillors unanimously agreed to the service design and procurement process in October 2018.

Conservative councillors Robert Nemeth and Garry Peltzer Dunn raised concerns about Brighton and Hove joining with East Sussex when the initial retendering and redesign of domestic abuse support services went before the committee in July 2018.

And Green councillor Pete West was also concerned that the council would not have full control of its domestic violence services.

Conservatives and Greens initially voted down the plans in July, demanding changes and more information.

An amended version, promising discussion with survivors and other stakeholders, received cross-party approval.

Councillor Nemeth said: “The Conservative group publicly warned against such a situation arising in July 2018 and, indeed, strongly voted against Labour’s plans that have ultimately led to Rise losing the contract.

“The matter was revisited not long afterwards and the Labour administration even gave assurances that our concerns would be taken into account in progressing the issue.

“It was wrong of Labour to disregard our concerns and wrong to drop Rise in such a shameful manner.”

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Labour councillor Daniel Yates brokered a cross-party deal with Green and Conservative councillors last week to help fund transformation in third sector organisations such as Rise.

The measure, which could help Rise to find new sources of income, is part of the council’s annual budget proposals which are due to be finalised on Thursday 25 February.

He is concerned that the recommendations about the retendering process – approved by the Neighbourhoods, Inclusion, Communities and Equalities Committee – were disregarded.

Councillor Yates said: “I’ve emailed the monitoring officer as chair of (the) Audit and Standards (Committee), asking for a review.

“This isn’t the first time the terms of a procurement appear to have changed post-councillor decisions.”

Brighton and Hove City Council has been approached for comment.