Article published: Thursday, February 17th 2011
With Manchester Advice to close and the government looking to scrap most legal aid funding in social welfare law, the ability to access detailed professional advice on a range of issues could soon be a thing of the past.
Over 100 positions are set to be axed and key services abolished with the closure of Manchester Advice (MA), throwing into jeopard access to free legal advice and representation for thousands across the city. Cuts to the Council-run service, which provides independent and confidential advice in a range of areas covering debt problems, access to welfare, consumer issues and housing, was announced by the Council in a bid to reduce the Adult Services budget by £40m over two years. The services, freely available to Manchester residents and Council employees, provide general and specialist advice, in-depth casework and signposting to other services and agencies at Number 1 First Street alongside drop-in centres throughout the city.
The closure of MA will allow the Council to make savings of £1.68m – estimated to be just over half of the city’s total funding for advice services which also include other services such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Yet with most of the city’s law centres already having been closed and those remaining facing a huge reduction in funding the decision could open up a black hole for people in vulnerable situations.
Services on their way out include the highly-valued bilingual Link Workers, whose role is to ensure that members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) communities gain access to services while facilitating inclusion and integration. Offering 16 different languages, a major benefit of the ‘in house’ service is that the Council does not have to pay freelance interpreters while also carrying the advantage that the workers are intimately acquainted with areas of social welfare services with which clients experience difficulties.
Another service over which hangs a question mark is an outreach service which runs out of GPs surgeries across the city and is run in conjunction with Primary Care Trusts, which are set to be abolished under the government’s controversial NHS changes.
The Court Advice Service which provides last-minute advice and representation to people threatened with repossessions – enabling 192 people to stay in their homes last year – has been given a one year reprieve, after which it faces review.
Also to be cut is legal representation at the Social Security tribunal, which hears appeals against decisions in areas such as disability benefits, income support and retirement pensions.
MULE understands that the remaining Council-provided services will be stripped to a bare minimum, with three members of staff currently employed by Customers Services department to take over an ‘internet signposting’ service. In effect they will be able only to direct clients to computers so they can find services themselves via the internet and according to sources inside the Council this will replace the entirety of Manchester Advice. Yet the survival of these ancillary services is likely to be overshadowed by the almost complete removal of all other services.
A Council advice worker who wished to remain unnamed spoke of his colleagues’ reaction to the dismantling of the service: “It seemed like senior management didn’t appear to understand the implications of all the cuts to these services when they are joined up, and what they will mean for those people who rely on them”.
A council spokesperson said: “All we can say at the moment is…that the Adults budget proposal following the settlement includes withdrawing all direct provision of Manchester Advice and delivering £1.68 million savings in year one.”
The importance of the services that MA provides to the city’s residents and council employees is difficult to overstate. In the last year MA resolved almost 20,000 complex issues for more than 8,500 clients, helping residents to maximise their incomes by over £27m. The benefits extend not only to those who receive services but also the public purse: by helping to resolve problems with mortgage lenders and landlords – and thereby preventing 804 households from falling into homelessness last year – estimated savings of on temporary accommodation £4.6m were made for the Council. Overall workers at the centre estimate that it had contact with 80,000 people in the year 09/10, putting £30m into the local economy.
Now there is fear among the city’s advice sector that at a time when the need for services is rapidly increasing due to job losses and consequent debt, housing and mental health problems, other organisations will lack the capacity to fill the gap left by MA. Recent national cuts to funding have thrown into doubt the ability of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which runs the city’s six Community Legal Advice Service (CLAS) centres, to absorb the excess demand. CLAS centres, which provide generalist advice and in-depth caseworke, are funded by the Council in partnership with the Legal Services Commission, the body responsible for the allocation of legal aid funding.
Last month the CAB was hit with the news that the government would not renew the financing of debt services which had been available to those who do not qualify under the strict eligibility criteria of legal aid funding – meaning a loss of around £250,000 from Manchester CAB’s overall budget.
Andy Brown, Chief Executive of Manchester CAB, spoke to MULE of the impact of the closure of MA:
“There is the possibility that some clients won’t be able to access advice services as easily as they currently do. We estimate that around half of the city’s advice budget is to be removed. If you take away half of the services in the city there will be great pressure – in effect twice as much work for us to do with the same amount of resources.”
On the issue of reduced legal representation before tribunals, he said:
“CAB currently provides representation for those who are eligible for legal aid and those who are not. While we always provide representation for clients with difficulties such as mental health or language problems, it might mean us rationing for others”.
Another shadow on the horizon is the government’s proposal to remove most areas of civil law – including employment, welfare benefits and housing – from legal aid funding. North Manchester and Wythenshawe Law Centres have both been forced to close in recent years, while South Manchester Law Centre in Longsight lost nearly all of its funding last year and now only provides immigration and asylum work. Such cuts would reduce the role of CLACs to merely providing general advice and prevent them from taking on complex casework at a time of increasing need. Andy Brown said:
“If the proposals go ahead, it could take another £1.4-£2m out of advice services in Manchester. That is a huge cut when many people are facing the brink of recession again. With inflation at 4% and people spending more across the board on housing, food and utilities those who previously didn’t feel the worst will be affected and coming through our doors.”
The comments are closed.