The chief executive of bailed-out mental health charity Greenwich Mind lacked financial skills and “kept things to himself”, councillors heard last night as part of an investigation into its near-collapse.
Greenwich Council’s Healthier Communities and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Panel heard candid and damning testimony about how the organisation came close to collapse this summer, before being bailed out by a last-minute £200,000 council grant last month.
The council, which provided most of Greenwich Mind’s funding, faced criticism itself for not subjecting the service to greater scrutiny when it awarded the charity contracts in 2014.
After heavy job losses, Greenwich Mind is set to be merged into neighbouring Bromley and Lewisham Mind in December after 40 years as a independent organisation.
While the financial acumen of former chief executive Ross Milne came under most scrutiny, chair of trustees Hannah Patrick was also criticised for not turning up to Wednesday night’s meeting – apparently because she was on holiday – an absence which one councillor called “inexcusable”.
Instead, the stricken charity’s treasurer Terry Clarke was left to answer for criticisms of Milne and Patrick. He told the panel that Milne, who resigned after the financial difficulties came to light, was “successful at bringing in additional funds in his early years”, leading to an initial £500,000 surplus in the charity’s reserves in 2014.
This surplus was used to fund an overspend on services, and trustees “assumed there would be funding to continue”, Clarke said.
Asked by panel co-chair Cherry Parker (Labour, Blackheath Westcombe) if Milne was “well-regarded but wasn’t good with money”, Clarke said it was “fair comment”, adding “we trusted him”.
Clarke said worries about finances had emerged in the past two years. Asked why they hadn’t been communicated to the council, which gave Greenwich Mind £330,000 of its £380,000/year funding, he responded: “I don’t think we knew we could do that.”
‘There was a ginormous problem’
Naomi Goldberg, chief executive of Greenwich Action for Voluntary Service – which merged into Metro GAVS this week – said Greenwich Mind was “very good at counting people” but struggled to explain the change it made to people’s lives.
Asked if the charity was complacent, she responded: “Complacent is the wrong word. It was ignorant”, adding it had its “head in the sand”.
“Hannah [Patrick] said there was an issue. I was trying to get her to accept there was a ginormous problem. [Greenwich] Mind didn’t talk to us.”
Volunteer Glynis Akers said questions were being asked two years ago about the charity’s finances and staff were “upset and angry”, while she and others said staff were kept out of meetings about money.
With neither Milne nor Patrick attending the scrutiny meeting, it was left to treasurer Terry Clarke to say: “We didn’t hear. There was a complete lack of communication.” He added there was no whistleblowing policy.
Metro GAVS’ Naomi Goldberg said there was a lack of “curiosity” among the trustees. Referencing the collapse of Kids Company and the actions of its high-profile chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh, she added: “Boards can be in awe of chief executives. We can all be mini-Kids Company chief executives.”
The human impact of the crisis at Greenwich Mind was also explored, with speakers coming from the public gallery to give their experiences. One volunteer, Lisa, said it had been hard to explain to service users what the future of the service was. “I always worry about how to deal with people who are suicidal and aggressive – I can’t give them the answers they need.”
‘Stop hobnobbing with the suits’
A volunteer, Angela, complained that donations and money raised through fundraising had “disappeared” – Clarke said it was still in the charity’s bank account.
Service user Julie Grimble said volunteers had been put under “enormous pressure”, adding: “There are people who have been turned away that we don’t even know about. Volunteers were told to send them away with no place to go.
“We’re really lucky there hasn’t been a suicide yet.”
The meeting heard that the council’s main contact with Greenwich Mind was Ross Milne, and Grimble said the council was out of touch with what was really happening at the charity – even though it was supposed to be a user-run organisation: “Why don’t you know what you’re buying for us?
“Can you stop hobnobbing with the suits and remember that Mind is the users?”
Council systems ‘not robust’
Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy (Labour) said cutbacks had made it harder for the council to monitor what was going on with voluntary groups it gave money to.
“In the good old days we had a central team for the voluntary sector, but that has been decimated,” he said, adding that current systems were “not sufficiently robust”.
He questioned why Greenwich Mind had been allowed to make staff redundant. “We give £1.75million to the voluntary sector each year – we as councillors are responsible for that.”
Fahy added that it was “indefensible” that trustees chair Patrick had not shown up for the meeting.
Abbey Wood councillor Steve Offord (Labour) said there had been “a change of culture from when we had the resources to monitor voluntary organisations”, adding that “barriers had been put up over the past few years” to prevent the monitoring of voluntary groups who used council funds.
The role of Greenwich councillor and Mind trustee Matt Morrow (Labour, Plumstead) – who watched from the packed public gallery – was also discussed. While Morrow did not come in for personal criticism, Offord suggested that it may be “more efficient” to have council officers as trustees rather than elected councillors – “I can’t see how councillors such as myself have the expertise”.
Mental health services ‘abandoned’
Under questioning from Matt Hartley (Conservative, Coldharbour & New Eltham), the council’s adult services head Simon Pearce said that one of the lessons learned from Greenwich Mind’s troubles was “the degree in which we pry into other organisations’ books”, adding “they’re not keen that we look into their books”.
Pearce added that there were “challenges in the way figures are presented”. “If we’d asked Greenwich Mind if they were solvent, the answer would be yes.”
“But solvency is not the same as sustainability,” Hartley responded.
John Fahy said that it was worrying that Greenwich Mind had been so dependent on council funding – its problems were exposed when Greenwich Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), a local NHS funding body, had cut its money for the charity.
“It’s a matter of concern that the CCG has abandoned Greenwich Mind and mental health generally,” Fahy said.
“Greenwich Mind is the sort of organisation that should be funded from across the piece.”
Referring to the council’s bailout, Cherry Parker said: “I don’t think we should be calling it a rescue plan. Nobody here feels it’s been rescued. We’ve failed this organisation.”
Conselling and crisis phone service remain unchanged
David Gardner, cabinet member for health & adult social care, agreed that the council needed to look at the way it monitored voluntary sector groups, adding that cuts meant it had “lost a long-standing centre of expertise”.
He added that the national Mind organisation needed to “step up” in making sure its local groups were up to the job.
Bromley & Lewisham Mind chief executive Ben Taylor praised the “fantastic commitment” of Greenwich Mind’s 50 volunteers. He told the committee that counselling and the Mindline crisis phone service would remain unchanged, although advocacy services would be reduced and group sessions reviewed.
A new merged service, Bromley, Lewisham and Greenwich Mind, should be up and running by 1 December, he said. It would have 13 trustees, with two spaces allocated for Greenwich borough residents.
Asked whether the existing trustees would be carrying over – or would be able to carry over – he simply responded: “We want to advertise and recruit the best people for the role, wherever they come from.”
Greenwich’s adult services head Simon Pearce said it would work on repairing the charity’s base at Ormiston Road, east Greenwich, which is leased from the council but had been allowed to become shabby under the old Greenwich Mind management.
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