Article published: Sunday, March 6th 2011
A campaign is underway to stop Manchester City Council from pulling the plug on free advice services that help tens of thousands of people each year. Last week a former head of the service gave a damning assessment of the Council’s proposal, while campaigners believe that lead officers and senior councillors are targeting Manchester Advice for creating “welfare dependency”.
Over 1,400 signatures have so far been collected to oppose the closure of the council-run Manchester Advice (MA) service which provides free advice and representation in a range of areas from housing and benefits to employment and training.
“We have been out at Harpurhey ASDA, Gorton Market and in Wythenshawe Shopping Centre this week trying to get people to sign postcards informing their local councillors of the impact that closure will have,” said Miriam, who has been helping run the campaign.
“Not everybody knows what advice is and many people get confused between with Citizen’s Advice Bureau or think it’s the same thing. When we explain that Manchester Advice is to be closed – and that the CAB will lose most of its funding from legal aid, meaning very few people will be able to access advice and representation – they are pretty shocked and outraged by what is going on.”
Through helping people claim entitlements to benefits, resolve debt and employment problems the service helped to maximise the income of Manchester residents by £27m last year. 804 families avoided repossessions with its help, saving the council £4.6m in temporary accommodation and rehousing costs. Despite its performance it has been targeted in order to save a mere £1.68m as part of a drive to slash the overall council budget by around a quarter – a move which will also mean a likely end to an additional £1.9m in funding it secures from external sources.
In face of the benefits it brings the council seems undeterred in its desire to pull the plug on MA. At a meeting in the Town Hall last Monday the Resources and Governance Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard from Barbara Guest, former head of Manchester Advice who spoke of the “devastating consequences for some of [the] city’s most vulnerable residents.” In a written submission she gave a damning assessment of Council’s proposal:
“[It does not] make sense financially. MA contributes substantially more to the economy than it costs…abolishing MA does not represent a cost-effective solution for the council and will actually end up costing the city significantly more than it saves.”
Guest went on to highlight that MA had already made efficiency savings of £345,000, exceeding in one year the target it was set to achieve over three, adding that “radical changes to its operating model could deliver further significant savings.”
Words on deaf ears
However her words such fell on deaf ears as the Labour-dominated committee rejected an amendment to the budget proposal by Lib Dem councillors which would have retained part of the service under a reduced budget of £600,000.
The council have responded by saying that the closure comes “in recognition of the availability of new city-wide legal advice provision,” referring to the Community Legal Advice Service (CLAS), provided across six centres run by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB). Yet campaigners argue that this is misleading at best and disingenuous at worst, as the council’s commitment to CLAS was prior and designed as complimentary to MA – not to replace it.
In an open letter to the Manchester city councillors, campaign group Access2Advice wrote: “The council’s budget proposal says that ‘new’ alternative advice provision provided by the voluntary sector can replace Manchester Advice. This is false. In fact, the complimentary advice provision…was recently truncated to form three district offices…with a local authority cash cut of £500,000 a year.”
Furthermore they argue that CLAS was not designed to absorb all of the casework of MA as it has far less capacity – a problem which will only be compounded by government proposals to slash legal aid funding.
Questions are now being raised about why the council should target such a successful service which costs relatively little but massively benefits the city’s residents and economy. Some in the service believe that it is partly from a lack of awareness at the top of the services that MA provides, and an understanding of the severity of the impact when cuts to services are joined-up. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in a statement by the council’s Executive Member’s Group to Monday’s meeting which bizarrely declares that “the proposed changes will improve access to advice as well as reducing costs.”
This failure to understand the nature of the services seeps down to senior management level, acording to one Advice worker who wished to remain unnamed: “When our director of services came to tell that us that the service was being axed she didn’t seem to have realised the compounded effect.
“We told her that there would no longer be any representation at the Social Security tribunal which deals with appeals for income and disability benefits and she seemed surprised.”
Pressure from the top?
Yet voices within the sector also believe that the pressure is coming to scrap the service from the top of the Council hierarchy – where it is understood that MA is not viewed in such rosy light.
In their open letter Access2Advice state: “Some lead officer and senior councillors apparently believe that advice creates welfare dependency. This is simply wrong. In fact, advice empowers and a lack of advice disempowers. Manchester Advice helps thousands of people each year into work, self-employment, study, training, volunteering, caring or community roles…”
Echoes of this were heard last week when Sir Richard Leese, Leader of the Council, appeared on North Manchester Community Radio. When asked by MULE editor Richard Goulding whether it would be more sensible to spend money on services like Sure Start and social services rather than continue investment in large regeneration projects he replied:
“If you want to create Manchester as the welfare capital of the world that’s a good route to go down.”
While the signs for survival are not optimistic for Manchester Advice, campaigners are resilient in their battle to retain vital advice services in the city.
“The decision to close Levenshulme Baths was reversed this week so you never know what could happen,” said Miriam.
“We will be holding a lobby outside the full Council meeting next Wednesday [9 March] where we will paint our hands white and blue – the colours of Manchester Advice – to show how many people are opposed to its closure.”
On Monday at 4.45pm outside the Town Hall in Albert Square, there will be a ‘Hands up for Manchester Advice’ demonstration
On Wednesday 9 March Access2Advice and other campaigners will hold a lobby outside the Town Hall where the full Council meeting will decide on the budget for the next financial year is to be decided. People are meeting from 8am onwards.
For more information or to get involved in the Save Advice Services campaign call Miriam: 07919184245
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