Thursday, 8 May 2008

No apologies

Crispin Passmore head of the Community Legal Service at the LSC argues that joint tenders with local authorities are the future for social welfare law services.

In the last month new Community Legal Advice services [the new name for Community Legal Advice Centres or CLACs] opened in Leicester, Derby and Portsmouth. In each of these we have jointly commissioned with the local authority a comprehensive legal and advice service covering general help and advice, specialist advice and legal representation across five social welfare law categories and family. In each of them the local community will get more help and more joined up help. They will better focus services on local priorities and reach out to people who do not access the advice they should.

There is no doubt that this is a period of significant change for providers involved in delivering general advice and legal aid for social welfare law. Having delivered the best service they can for many years, their funders are now saying that they want a different service. I do not apologise for that. In recent years we have learnt more about how current legal and advice services too often fail to meet the needs of the communities that need them – fragmented services presenting an un-navigable advice maze to clients faced with domestic violence, illegal eviction and poverty. It would be a failure of public service delivery to not respond to those criticisms.

If we track back to 2004 the LSC was criticised for poor leadership to the Community Legal Service, for falling numbers of people being helped and for gaps in services – so called ‘advice deserts’. A clear direction has been identified after careful consideration of internationally renowned academic research. It was consulted upon in 2005 and has been reconsidered by Lord Carter. Our focus now needs to be on making change happen. We are beginning to see real evidence of positive change in terms of more people helped, better access and joined up services.

Yet, understandably, there is real discomfort that a CAB faces the loss of its contract to deliver debt and benefits advice in Hull as they have not been successful in the tender for a new Community Legal Advice service to open there. However, under previous arrangements clients needing representation under a legal aid certificate had to be referred elsewhere, as did those whose debt and benefits problems were combined with relationship breakdown, homelessness or discrimination at work.

It is disappointing that so many commentators wish to defend services that clients cannot access or that cannot provide the joined up service that clients need. Across Hull four firms or agencies have been delivering social welfare law advice. None have community care contracts, one does only housing and one does only employment. The people of Hull will now get a much improved service.

So what about the future? I do not want the tender process for future Community Legal Advice services to be about finding the one good provider – it is not about weeding out poor quality. I want three, four, five or more top quality bids for each Community Legal Advice service. I doubt they will ever be just each of the current local providers looking to expand to cover the full range of services. More likely is that bids will come from mergers or partnerships of local agencies, regional suppliers such as A4E/Howells, national providers such as Shelter or Citizens Advice and other local providers interested in providing social welfare law services only if they are on an economically viable scale. We are already seeing this pattern emerge with better and better bids in each tender exercise and interesting new relationships forming amongst providers. Good bids will inevitably not succeed where competition is strong – I hope that providers continue to respond to not winning one tender by innovating to deliver better services in their next bid. We know that recent bidders have already been doing this and those that resist change risk being left behind.

In the future competition will come from these regional and national and nearby local providers – all having expertise in delivering joined up services, understanding local needs and, importantly, all committed to delivering the services that Government and Local Government want to procure for their citizens.

Crispin Passmore, Community Legal Service

3 comments:

Frederick said...

Crispin Passmore misrepresents the service provided by Hull CAB. He writes: "Yet, understandably, there is real discomfort that a CAB faces the loss of its contract to deliver debt and benefits advice in Hull." This suggests that Hull CAB offers advice and help only on debt and benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the bureau provides expert advice and help also on employment issues, consumer problems, divorce and separation, immigration and nationality and housing. What evidence is there that a profit-making organisation will "reach out to people who do not access the advice they should"? If I needed help and advice, I would rather address myself to an organisation motivated by a sense of social justice than one whose primary aim is, inevitable, to make a profit.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I share Frederick's view and I do not like to see government agencies trying to direct the third sector, indeed coerce in some instances (by withdrawal of grants), into their idea of what makes for good legal services. It would be much better for central and local government to fund local services properly and let them evolve their services in response to local need.