Town Hall holds debate on future of domestic violence charity Sistah Space

Photograph: Save Sistah Space campaign.

The dispute over the future of specialist domestic violence charity Sistah Space was formally debated at a Hackney Council meeting last night, after months of back-and-forth between the two organisations.

A petition was brought to councillors by Sistah Space founder Ngozi Fulani, calling for a minimum five-year lease for a new home for the charity from either a designated voluntary and community sector (VCS) site, or for another property within the Town Hall’s portfolio at VCS rates.

The dispute began last year when the council asked the charity to return  from a premises they were temporarily occupying to their former shopfront, a venue which the Town Hall had refurbished for use by the group but which Sistah Space maintained was unsuitable and unsafe.

Fulani said: “There is something really, really wrong with Hackney’s system. They shout very loudly that Black lives matter, and about diversity in Hackney, but there are no provisions for African-heritage people.

“Sistah Space have been held in high esteem for the work we have done and continue to do, and that is why Hackney gave us a citizen’s award, made us one of the Speaker’s chosen charities last year and more.

“But the moment we said ‘Please sir, can we have some more’, that’s when things really started to go bad. It’s almost like we’re okay as long as we stay in our corner. So I’m here in the midst of a pandemic and asking you to take your collective knees off of our necks, because we can’t breathe.

“We provide a service that you can’t or won’t, and instead of using us as a resource, because we are the experts on us, you fight us with every corporate tool at your disposal, spending thousands on legal fees. We’re a very small charity, and our only crime, it seems, was asking for safety.”

Save Sistah Space campaigners were also present at the meeting, arguing that a failure to meet Sistah Space’s requests by the Town Hall would be a breach of the council’s public sector equality duty (PSED), under which the local authority must seek the elimination of discrimination and the advancement of equality of opportunity.

The debate had seen outrage from campaigners in the run-up to the meeting, with correspondence released between Women’s Equality Party (WEP) activist Rebecca Lammers advocating to her councillor Cllr Michael Desmond on Sistah Space’s behalf.

Long-time Labour councillor Desmond had responded to Lammers that at full council meetings he would only consider voting “the way my Labour colleagues do, based on what the Mayor says”.

In response, the WEP campaigner said: “I write to my councillors since they are my representatives in the council. I don’t always expect them to agree with me, but it’s important they know resident views and opinions on what matters to us most, and to campaign those in positions of power and responsibility.

“Cllr Desmond’s response is a total disappointment. It’s as if there is no democracy in the council. I have a picture of myself with Cllr Desmond hanging in my living room from my British citizenship ceremony at Hackney Town Hall in 2015. It pains me to look at that picture and think how my opinion doesn’t matter, but the Mayor’s does.”

Councillors Sade Etti and Sophie Conway both spoke from their experiences as survivors of domestic abuse in responding to Fulani’s petition, with Conway dismissing the dispute between the charity and the local authority as a “false dichotomy”.

Conway said: “There is no them and us. As Hackney councillors, we are also residents and service users. I am of Black heritage and have also been a victim of domestic abuse, and with the sobering statistic that one in three women will have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetime, it is unlikely that I am the only one in this meeting this evening whose life has been impacted by domestic abuse.

“Experiences of racism, abuse and other forms of oppression, motivated many of us to get involved in politics. They inform our aspirations for change and inspire every facet of our work on the council. The ‘residents versus the council’ narrative posits a harmful false dichotomy – harmful because it strips council members and officers of these lived experiences.

“The work that Sistah Space does resonates with me, as I have worked with Black victims of domestic abuse for a long time as an independent advocate for a charity, and I hope that they will secure a suitable space within the borough so that they can continue their valuable work.”

In Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville’s response to Fulani’s petition, the borough leader revealed that four VCS properties are currently unoccupied, with between five and seven charities bidding for each property when they come available.

Two of the properties, according to Glanville, are in need of investment before letting. Another recently became available but received no bid from Sistah Space, and the fourth is the charity’s former shopfront.

According to Cllr Chris Kennedy, who leads on the Town Hall’s strategic relationship with the VCS, the council had given “very careful consideration” to its continuing obligations under the public sector equality duty.

Kennedy went on to argue that “it would be unfair and against our policy to unilaterally transfer a property over to our VCS portfolio simply for the use of one charity”, and that this act in itself would breach the council’s duties under the Equality Act in relation to other organisations.

Responding to Lammers’ arguments that beyond its legal duties the council has a “moral obligation” to help Sistah Space, Kennedy responded: “We supported them initially with the property on Upper Clapton Road, even fitted it out to their specification, then whilst that work was being done in a diffrent property and under a temporary licence agreement they decided they would rather stay there.

“At that point things became very difficult for us, which is why we entered into mediation and why both sides agreed that on or before 17 January Sistah Space would vacate that space. That is where we are now. As previous speakers have said, we do hope we can continue to work with them in a constructive way.”

Kennedy also joined with equalities lead Cllr Carole Williams in speaking out against what Williams characterised as the “social media kangaroo court” around debate over the charity’s future which saw hundreds of protesters fill the Town Hall Square last year.

Williams added: “I think it is important to point out when you look at the online campaign that there have been political pariahs who have been poised and ready to exploit this situation for their own personal gain.

“We are used to the concept of divide and rule, and it has been a tactic that has been around for a very long time and has a very long history. There are those who say they stand for equalities but who are willing to throw African, Caribbean, Asian, Turkish, Jewish and Muslim members of this council under a bus in the hope of gaining a few votes in the 2021 election.

“In the time that we have been served in this administration we have been built a firm foundation for the work that we are doing on diversity, inclusion and race equality.

“This racially and religiously diverse administration should be recognised for the achievements of the last four years, instead what we have to do is endure the indignity of a public shaming being told yet again that the work that we do amounts to nothing and that we are not equal in the eyes of those who are exploiting this situation.”

Conservative Cllrs Harvey Odze and Simche Steinberger spoke out in “full support” of Fulani and her petition, with Odze calling for the Town Hall to grant Sistah Space a safe venue and for all charities currently supporting women in council properties the same rates.

The opposition councillors’ contribution was dismissed as “a bit rich to now start talking about Black lives” by Cllr Kofo David, who pointed to the Conservative group’s lack of support for the Black Lives Matter motion passed by Labour at the Town Hall last year.

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville said: “This petition sets out that Sistah Space would like us to hand over a property to them ─ an action that would not only be in breach of our own VCS policy, but be unfair to the other charities that follow the fair and transparent policy and bid for a space.

“Instead of overriding council policy, our officers have gone above and beyond to meet the terms of the mediated agreement ─ reaching out to engage with Sistah Space ahead of the end of the license, paying for removal costs to a location of their choice, sourcing an all-women removals company, providing storage space for free.

“We want to move forward and work with partners like Sistah Space to meet the ambition to end violence against women and girls, and create council services that can meet the needs of Hackney’s diverse population.

“Like Cllrs Etti and Conway approximately 34,000 women in Hackney have experienced domestic abuse in their life ─ a shameful statistic that we want to see the end of.

“We also know our diverse communities face barriers approaching the council, and our services are constantly reaching out to make us more accessible and supportive, with the domestic abuse intervention service (DAIS) participating in Hackney CVS’ Licence to Drive Change aimed at women of African heritage residing in Hackney, in the Hackney Faith Forum, and more.

“The result of this work is a service with a diverse workforce, with one third of DAIS staff being Black women, committed to serving the needs of every community in Hackney.

“Contrary to some claims, there has been no campaign against Sistah Space, no hidden agendas or ulterior motives, no attacks – just at every steps the clear facts, backed up by inclusive policies and dedicated officers and colleagues who in difficult circumstances do all of this work underpinned by Hackney values.

“I know, that against that backdrop ─ the determination to end violence against women, and end racism ─ that this administration is ready to continue to work in good faith with Sistah Space to end domestic violence and abuse, but it can’t do so in the way set out in the petition.”