Welfare fears provoke £1 million advice services U-turn

Article published: Wednesday, March 6th 2013

The most sweeping benefit reforms in a generation have prompted Manchester City Council to reinvest an extra £1 million into advice services after previous cuts to the sector.

Manchester-Town-Hall ed okeefeThe funds, earmarked in a late budget amendment agreed to by Town Hall chiefs and expected to be confirmed this Friday as the full council votes on a £80m cuts budget, could entail a significant overhaul of the city’s current advice sector.

The bulk of Manchester’s free and confidential generalist advice and information on issues such as debt, welfare and housing is currently provided by Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) through a Community Legal Advice Service jointly funded by the council and the government’s Legal Services Commission (LSC).

But now the council says the end of an annual £1.3m in LSC funding for specialist services has left its current arrangements untenable and in need of a major rethink.

Councillor Glynn Evans, the council’s lead member for Adult Services, told Mule the withdrawal meant CAB “cannot now deliver on the original tender. Therefore a new tender has to be put together, which gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate all the other advice agencies across the city.”

Evans added that an “interim advice service” would operate while the re-evaulation was “ongoing”.

The decision comes after months of lobbying by local campaign group Access to Advice, who recently hosted a national conference on legal aid cuts, and backbench councillors including Paul Fairweather of Harpurhey.

One million pound question

CABIt is not known how a new service might operate, although a detailed report is expected to be presented in May by town hall officials to the council’s Communities scrutiny committee.

Money will come from public health, a “social fund grant” intended to replace crisis loans and the council’s  “Manchester Investment Fund” for preventative public services.

The additional funding has come as a surprise to some providers in the city, and no details have yet been announced as to who the council will consult with in any design of future services.

The move comes just two years after the council’s closure of its in-house “Manchester Advice” service, estimated by campaigners to have reduced by half the city’s available provision.

Protestors in support of Manchester Advice outside Manchester Town Hall on 7 March, 2011

Protestors in support of Manchester Advice outside Manchester Town Hall on 7 March, 2011

Since the closure small teams remain to assist people accessing support related to domestic violence, mental health and the Court Service for support against evictions, in addition to mainstream services provided through the Citizens Advice Bureau.

A benefits appeals team was also retained after vigorous campaigning by local Access to Advice campaigners in a previous council cuts round in 2011.

“Absolutely essential”

Commenting on the plans, Councillor Evans said advice services would be “absolutely essential as the repercussions of the welfare changes and council tax changes make an impact.

“Access to good advice early on will be critical to delivering a service which will sustain people in the longer term, rather than offering reactive on-the-spot advice.”

Access to Advice campaigner Jean Betteridge agreed, explaining to Mule that “£1 million funding for advice is essential to stop a further massive cut in advice services in Manchester, just when they are needed most.

“Many Manchester residents will be needing information, advice on new rules and procedures and to challenge wrong decisions”, she added. “People need advice to get fair decisions so they can feed their children, deal with the costs of disability, keep a roof over their head, stay in work.”

Betteridge also warned that proper advice would be crucial in helping people access their rights and resolve problems at an early stage. She added that cutting advice services would only act as a false economy as crisis issues spiralled out of control.

“Funding advice services will save the Council money”, she argued. “Advice services are highly cost effective. They prevent problems becoming a crisis situation, for example homelessness, family breakdown, health breakdown which have huge knock on costs for the council housing and social care budgets.”

Richard Goulding

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