Friday, 26 August 2011

An Open Letter to AUTISM NI

To: Autism NI

For the attention of Ms Arlene Cassidy, CEO

Dear Ms Cassidy

Re: Autism NI - A Cost Benefit Analysis ?

I refer to the above and note from my own calculations from your website ( that at least 15 paid staff are retained in your organisation.

From my calculation it appears that only four of those members would actually have any responsibility delivering services to parents and/or families. The majority of staff, as indicated by their job title appear to be fundraisers, administrators and event managers/lobbyists.

I would be grateful if you could explain the rationale of retaining such a large fundraising and administrative staff. I note from the website that Family Services provided by the charity together with other programs/services are extremely limited if non-existent.  The ratio of staff to service provision within AutismNI seems inordinately top heavy compared to other organisations who provide similar services in Northern Ireland. Very few charities in Northern Ireland would have AutismNI's administrative budget to pay these individuals' salaries, much less anything else.

Until the charities commission permits Freedom of Information requests to be pursued against charities, we the public will never really know what AutismNI receives in donations/government funding. In the interest of being transparent to your suppporters, however, I am sure you will agree that you should publish the charity's annual report on the website for the last fiscal year. Unlike the year 2009/2010, those accounts should be published in a way that is actually decipherable by the human eye.

My guesstimate is that together with your own salary which I presume is in the £50-60,000 per annum mark together with the combined salaries of your other staff members (including your parent liaison workers who probably make the going rate of minimum wage and or just above), the total amount in wages that the charity pays out per year is approximately £330,000 - £350,000. That estimate includes the potential payment of any wages to the Charity's President, David Heatley and the potential payment of services to one of your government lobbyists Eileen Bell. I don't know if the charity pays these people.

Can you explain what benefit is derived by families living with autism, considering the above estimated cost in salaries? Do you really need 15 plus staff to deliver almost no services? There are 10 charities that work directly with autism in Northern Ireland of which AutismNI is only one. There are a mulitude of other 3rd sector organisations that work directly and indirectly with persons who have autism, many of which do not have anywhere near the funding you have but who deliver a variety of regular and much needed services. What cost benefit is derived from the outlay of salary payment to so many staff?

I note last month (here: one of AutismNI's contracts in the Western Health Trust was terminated recently, 'out of the blue' as quoted by your staff member Paula Hanratty. The article states that "Autism NI had, over the years, secured and invested nearly £550,000 additional funding into the Trust area to meet the needs of families affected by ASD."  With this contract and others now terminated, it is difficult to know exactly what Autism NI does. Your website states that the charity has scores of support groups, many if not most of which operate themselves with parental administration. They do not require 15 of your staff to run them as I presume they run themselves and carry out their own fundraising. Some of these 'groups' consist only of a few parents around a kitchen table, and are in fact 'support groups' in name only.

I would be interested to have your clarification of the comment above relating to the £550,000 investment by AutismNI into the Western area Trust. I believe that AutismNI acted as a conduit in this area,  of government monies. The comment implies that AutismNI 'raised' its own monies. I think it would be more fair to say that the charity used publicly funded contract monies and re-invested them in the area. The money came from the government - Autisim NI simply spread it around. Would that be correct? The 'jobs' referred to, that were lost because of those cuts - could you clarify how much those 'jobs' paid? I note from the past that job descriptions emanating from AutismNI offered to pay parent liaison workers the minimum wage.

With the public purse being tightened, government contracts for services must now generally be carried out through a bidding process. AutismNI's contract was terminated because the Western Trust believed it could provide better services than AutismNI could do.  I also believe parents are demanding more from charities who purport to be 'helping' them.

Looking at AutismNI's website, I fear that parents are not getting the kind of help they need and certainly not help that is current or research based. I believe that despite the charities 15 staff members that AutismNI's helpline number is only open a few hours a week. Could you outline the number of hours of real face to face contact both you and other staff members have with children and families who live with autism? How many parents does the charity refer onwards to other organisations? Does the charity keep records of this? If so perhaps we the public could see these statistics. I should add that parents I know who have contacted AutismNI have been told to go to other charities and voluntaries or simply do not have their phone calls answered. Could you advise what those 15 staff members do during their day?

Two parent friends of mine have asked me to publicise their 'experience' with Autism NI. They both have young children with ASD and both of them had to seek help elsewhere than Autism NI because the charity could not help them and they were referred onwards.  I told them I would wait for your response to this letter.

An immediate publication of AutismNI's annual report outlining it's funding and expenditure for the past year is well overdue. Please publish this on your website.

I and I am sure others would like to know and understand what AutismNI, as a charity, spends its money on. I presume that the charity developed and spent money on its new website to indicate to parents and individuals with autism the services and advice it provides to them. After looking at the website it does not appear that much if anything is being provided by AutismNI particularly in light of the number of paid staff it retains. Cancelled contracts in the Western Trust together with other funding being pulled across the North begs the question what AutismNI as a charity actually delivers, particularly in context of it retaining so many staff members, all of whom must be paid.

There are strict guidelines that will soon be set in place by the NI Charities Commission. There is a distinct line between a charity and a political lobby group, an explanation that in part, can be seen here from the Charities Commission website: (

"D3. Can a charity have a political purpose?
The short answer
A charity cannot have a political purpose. Nor can a charity undertake political activity that is not relevant to, and does not have a reasonable likelihood of, supporting the charity's charitable purposes.

Whilst a charity cannot have political activity as a purpose, the range of charitable purposes means that, inevitably, there are some purposes (such as the promotion of human rights) which are more likely than others to lead trustees to want to engage in campaigning and political activity. (See section D4 for information on including campaigning and political activity in a governing document.)

In more detail
A charity cannot have political activity as any of its charitable purposes. This is because a charitable purpose should fall within the description of purposes set out in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. However, political activity can be carried out by a charity to support the delivery of its charitable purposes. In order to be a charity, an organisation must have purposes which are exclusively charitable and for the public benefit. An organisation with a political purpose, such as promoting a change in the law, legally cannot be a charity. This applies even if the organisation has other purposes which are charitable. This would involve looking at 'political' questions, which neither we nor the courts are in a position to answer. Constitutionally, it is not possible for the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland or the Courts to make decisions about whether a change in the law or Government policy would be for the public benefit. However, organisations which are established to ensure that the law is observed, for example respecting certain fundamental human rights, will not automatically fall within this definition. This is a complex area and in future years we will explore with charities established for the advancement of human rights, the boundaries of this particular charitable purpose in relation to campaigning and political activity."

The fact that AutismNI retains the services of the President Mr David Heatley and Ms Eileen Bell as a political lobbyist is questionable. Mr Heatley and yourself are well known to MLA's and to Stormont as is Ms Bell. Mr Heatley as far as I know does not deliver programs for the benefit of your members or for the wider 'autism' community. As President of AutismNI, is Mr Heatley a paid member of staff. Do you pay Ms Bell a wage for her lobbying services to the charity? How many other members of staff of AutismNI are paid a wage and in what context of providing services to the community? What is your definition of a charity? What provision to families living with autism does the charity currently provide and how much of the charity's budget is fixed for that purpose compared to its administrative costs?

These are questions that should have been asked well before now, and that should be now be answered.

I look forward to your timely response.


for further information see :  and in particular this page:  which lists AutismNI as a charity whose reports are not published or whose accounts are not available and/or do not detail its public funding.