Solace's response to the Open Letter

We promised to provide a response to the Open Letter published on Twitter earlier this month and which was referenced by the press in an article published on July 10th. We did not see the Open Letter, dated 27th June until the article was republished on 11th July, linking directly to it. The Open Letter was not sent to us beforehand.

We have taken time to respond because we wanted to reflect on the content of the Open Letter and give it our considered attention. Whilst it is uncomfortable for the leadership to be publicly challenged in this way, we take any criticism seriously and recognise that it is in the best interests of Solace for us to respond in a spirit of openness, transparency and accountability.

Talking to colleagues at all levels of the organisation, particularly over the past two weeks, we understand that you want the Senior Management Team (Heads of Service and the Executive Team) to take more time to listen to your views, to communicate better and to have an open dialogue about the decisions we make. We are taking steps to foster a culture of inclusivity where everyone feels able to speak out freely and this is enshrined explicitly within our organisational Strategy.

We do not want our response to the Open Letter to be misinterpreted as an attack on colleagues or former colleagues. It is not. Listening and learning from women with lived experience is part of Solace’s core values and we will never silence or ignore anyone who has been the victim of racism, whether in the workplace or in any other aspect of their life.

Our intention with this response is to have a clear and honest discussion of the issues highlighted in the Open Letter and of the principles that guide us as an organisation. We want to set out the information as objectively as possible and to find a common basis on which to move forward together.

For clarification, we have grouped the issues under nine general categories. Some relate directly to anti-racism, others are more general points about wider staff-related issues, but we wanted to acknowledge and respond to them all.

1. Championing the rights of Black women

We are committed to fighting all forms of oppression, but we recognise that we need to challenge ourselves to improve alongside wider society. Embedding anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice is one of our core long-term aims; we have started this journey and have openly acknowledged that we have further work to do.

Acting swiftly and decisively when we receive reports of racist behaviours. Our focus is on the positive action we take to support Black colleagues and how we implement an anti-racist framework. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, Judith Banjoko our Director of Services created Black Lives Matter coffee mornings for Black staff members to come together, underpinned by reflective group practice by an experienced external facilitator. We also provided for additional 5 days special leave for any Black staff members in mid-2020, recognising the impact of George Floyd’s shocking murder.

Our revised Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which was drawn up last July, has since been coordinated, updated and actioned. It is a live document that continues to be developed as we listen and hear from staff across the organisation. We believe it was a meaningful response to Black Lives Matter and that it offers a positive way forward. It included tangible measures, such as appointing a Head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, a commitment to publish an ethnicity pay gap report and to review all our HR policies and procedures.

We accept that we did not communicate the action plan regularly in an inclusive, collaborative way and we want to allow the opportunity for continuing discussion, with all staff feeling empowered to share their perspectives, especially those with lived experience. This is not a top-down strategy, and we want to give all staff a sense of ownership. We are taking forward suggestions proposed by employees of colour and will shortly be launching a weekly drop-in session in which staff can access specialist support and confidential advice on race related workplace challenges.

We will review the existing structures that were set up to give colleagues a voice and we acknowledge there is work to be done here. Last July, in our continued expression of solidarity with Black Lives Matter we promised to work collaboratively to ensure we had a meaningful and thoughtful approach to anti-oppressive and anti-racist practice both internally and for our service users and prioritise how staff across Solace can engage safely with this conversation. We remain committed to this approach.

Vicki Arogundade, our Head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is currently reviewing our champions model and exploring ways of reinvigorating it.

We are continually looking for ways to meet the needs of our Black and Minoritised colleagues and we are making further efforts to support any reasonable requests and try to address concerns raised where possible.

We recognise that our previous champions and network meetings have sometimes brought up significant emotions for participants who attended and have been overwhelming at times, for all of us. We intend to learn from previous attempts of creating peer support spaces and we are committed to driving forward the new inclusion network which is already in progress. This will be a key mechanism to help identify more effective ways of supporting the progression of Black and Minoritised women (professionally and personally), as well as learning how we can best meet their needs.  

We must respond to direct allegations of racism made in the open letter. Allegations of racism, bullying, harassment, and discrimination by members of the Executive Team and Senior Management Team were raised with Solace’s Board in December by a colleague who left the organisation. This included a complaint about the SMT Meeting held in August, which was attended by E&D colleagues. An external, independent investigator was appointed, who reported directly to the Board. The investigator conducted 19 interviews and reviewed over 200 documents. The extensive investigation concluded this week and did not find any evidence to uphold any allegations of racism, bullying, harassment, and discrimination. However, we understand that this does not take away how people felt about their experience in that meeting. We recognise that lessons learnt from this will help inform our actions moving forward.

2. Complaints against Black and Minoritised staff

The aim of Solace is to work to prevent violence and abuse as well as providing services to meet the needs of survivors. We take any complaints seriously as an organisation, utilising them as an opportunity to learn and improve our services. We believe in a culture of continuous improvement and are committed to ensuring that that all staff, regardless of ethnicity, should be helped to provide the best possible service to the vulnerable women and children who depend on us.

We have undertaken a review of all our central complaints log and have looked at all service user complaints over the past two years that this could refer to and we believe that the example of ‘weaponising complaints’ refers to a specific complaint. An internal investigation into a complaint made by a Service User about the release of notes was upheld, both on the grounds of an unreasonable 10-month delay and that limitations imposed by GDPR were inaccurately used as a rationale for not passing on information. 

There was internal discussion about how best to address these significant failings and the managers concerned were asked to undertake a learning review to identify any failings in the system and to identify opportunities for improvement.

3.     Data security

Concerns were raised that an initial Black Lives Matter report produced by external consultants, selected by a panel of the Director of Services, the CEO and Black staff members, had not been properly anonymised and individual staff could therefore have been identified.

142 members of staff participated in the Black Lives Matter survey and the results were not collatable in the form in which Solace received them, as we had made it clear we wanted to preserve anonymity. We had no access to the raw data as we were deliberately not the owners of the survey.   Following a whistleblowing complaint to the Board that staff were identifiable because of comments they had previously made, an external, independent investigator was appointed to investigate these concerns and additional advice was sought from a legal advisor as to whether a data breach had occurred.

This investigation concluded there had been no breach of data protection legislation and that the data could not be analysed to identify individual staff members.

Whilst no data breach was found, we apologise that the person who made the complaint was made to feel concerned because we had not communicated this clearly. There are lessons to be learned around how the organisation works with and shares data and we will be looking at how training can support staff in this area.

 

4.  Disciplinary processes

We believe that the reference to unfair disciplinary processes in the open letter refers to an investigation which took place during the second national lockdown, when indoor socialising was not permitted by the Government restrictions. We received complaints from our landlord and other tenants about an illegal social event arranged and attended by eight colleagues, which lasted for several hours into the evening and included the consumption of alcohol in the common areas of the building. After carrying out an investigation, and speaking with all those present, it was decided that no disciplinary process would result. A letter was written to those who attended to point out this serious error of judgement in breaking the law and Solace’s Code of Conduct.

5.    Union membership

We are committed to an open dialogue with all staff and recognise the vital role that trade unions play in representing the interests of their members, facilitating discussions on union membership and arranging for staff sessions with a TUC representative. No colleague has ever been persecuted because of union membership, or ever would be. Indeed, we do not even know which colleagues belong to a union unless they choose to pay their subscriptions through the payroll, or they tell us explicitly. Staff belong to a wide range of unions who rightly represent the interests of their members as organisations.

A group of staff sought voluntary recognition of United Voices of the World (UVW) as Solace’s union for collective bargaining in August 2020.  Solace sought meetings with UVW on a number of occasions, but these have not been taken up by UVW, and requests to UVW to ascertain the size of its membership within Solace were also refused.

It is our understanding that UVW were seeking recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), the formal process for union recognition, but Solace has heard nothing from CAC. There has been no response from UVW on the matter of union recognition from our last communication to them in September 2020.

6. Pay

We have long felt that the pay in the VAWG sector needs to improve and, as such, have committed in our 5-year strategy to working with partners across the sector to increase pay for the sector, together with challenging competitive tendering for VAWG services.

We benchmark salaries each year and have committed to continue to do this in partnership with staff. Our benchmarking exercise, most recently completed in November 2020, found salaries are comparable to similar specialist organisations in the sector, and we have amended and increased our pay scales for accommodation-based staff and caseworkers this year, recognising that there was a disparity between services. All staff, including apprentices, are paid the London Living Wage as a minimum.

We have committed to an ethnicity pay gap report and have asked for all staff to complete equality monitoring information, securely and confidentially stored on our HR system, to enable us to do this. We will publish the findings of an equality pay gap report on our website when completed and have committed to addressing any disparities identified.

7.    Brexit and EU Nationals

Up to date information, on how to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme for both Service Users and Staff has been regularly publicised throughout by email and since 2020 on the Solace intranet.

Our Brexit-specific Business Continuity Plan has been regularly updated since February 2019 and has always included impact for Staff, Vulnerable EU Service Users and the potential for negative community cohesion.  These plans have been shared with our commissioners and others when requested.

The specific claims of xenophobia within the Open Letter have never been raised by any staff members, either with the SMT or with HR directly.

8.     Working environment during Covid-19

Since publishing our first Covid-19 Business Continuity Plan in February 2020, focusing on the welfare of staff as well as the continuity of service delivery, we have issued 41 updates to colleagues and our plan has been widely adopted by other organisations in the sector. We have recruited extra staff to help with service delivery and launched an emergency appeal which is also enabling us to recruit to new posts, including specialist mental health support to support staff with complex cases.

We have followed government guidance throughout the pandemic, including when staff should go to work and exemptions for staff who were unable to work from home.  Most staff have worked from home during the entire period, and we put in place measures to maintain staff wellbeing, including a wellbeing budget for teams, and provided activities for staff to come together remotely.

During November and December 2020, staff were issued with a one-off homeworking payment in conjunction with completing a homeworking assessment and we have invested heavily in improving our digital infrastructure, including provision of new phones and laptops to many staff to enable them to work fully remotely. Covid-secure Risk Assessments have been produced for each service and regularly updated; Solace holds the CHAS Covid-19 Best Practice certification. We have provided access to community testing and worked with public health teams to ensure that any colleagues who wanted the vaccine were on priority lists. We have undertaken individual risk assessments which have incorporated relevant guidance, including risk associated with ethnicity. To date, no member of staff has become infected with Covid-19 in their workplace. 

9.    HR lacking knowledge

We have been strengthening our HR processes, updating policies and procedures and will ensure these are easily accessible to colleagues via our intranet.  We acknowledge that there have been times when individual staff have felt unsupported and recognise that our HR team needs to continue to grow and have recruited additional experienced and knowledgeable professionals who will provide support to colleagues and the Board.

Whilst it has been difficult in recent months to engage directly with staff, we will work with pace in the coming months to provide opportunities for dialogue on a range of employee matters in safe spaces. 

We will be introducing staff engagement meetings and will increase the visibility of the HR team and Senior Management Team at all our offices to promote better working relationships, taking into account fairness for all colleagues, including Black and Minoritised groups.

Conclusion

This has been a hard and exhausting time for all of us and there has been a lot of hurt. We appreciate that this is a lengthy response to the Open Letter, but felt it was important that everyone has a chance to consider the information we have put in the public domain in the interests of transparency. We want to reassure you that we have put together this document because we want to respond constructively to the points that have been raised. We want this to be the start of a new, open and improved dialogue within the organisation, helping us to look to the future

Fiona Dwyer, on behalf of the whole Senior Management Team and Board of Trustees