Thursday, 15 July 2010

Citizens Advice seeks divine intervention?

Fear stalked the campus of York University, along with Church of England clergy, at the Citizens Advice Bureaux northern conference last week. Bureaux from northern England were meeting for their annual get together, under the cloud of impending cuts.

A potentially cataclysmic funding storm is brewing for the bureaux as they await the results of their tenders for civil legal aid contracts from the Legal Services Commission (LSC). Many of the bureaux currently undertake advice work in debt and welfare benefits under contracts with the LSC. Some of the larger ones also have contracts in other areas of work, for example, Gateshead Citizens Advice Bureau works in immigration, employment, benefits, debt and is looking to expand into family law. The results of the new tenders for the contracts, which commence in October, were due to be announced on the second day of the conference last Friday (9 July). However, the LSC seems to be in the midst of administrative meltdown and has had to delay advising bureaux whether they have a contract or not. This has left many on tenterhooks, fearing they will have to make staff redundant in the coming months and reduce their opening hours to the public.

Some managers and trustee board members gathering in York believe that up to 80 per cent of their funding could go in the next few months. One manger from a bureau in Lancashire told LAG that it could lose nearly £800,000 in contract cash by April next year, leaving it with less than £100,000 in funding. Like many, this bureau potentially faces losing its legal aid contracts as well as central government funding. Money given to Citizens Advice by the last government to help it cope with the extra work caused by the recession is due to run out by March 2011, as is cash from the Financial Inclusion Fund (FIF).

The FIF was established in 2006 by the previous government. The total fund allocated was £120m and it was intended to tackle debt and money problems through a combination of educating the public and advice. £45m of the fund has gone on frontline advice services paying for over 300 debt advisers in Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice agencies. According to Citizens Advice, over 70,000 people facing money problems have been helped by these FIF services. The new government, though, is staying tight-lipped on whether it will renew the grants.

The delegates might have been tempted to enlist the support of their fellow temporary residents at the University of York, as the Church of England Synod was meeting at the same time on campus. This made for an interesting juxtaposition of discussions on seemingly intractable problems.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, cut a careworn figure in a corner of the refectory at breakfast time last Friday. Around the refectory his bishops and other clergy were discussing a compromise deal over women bishops. Meanwhile, the Citizens Advice delegates, often sharing the same tables as the clergy, discussed legal aid contracts and the FIF. Perhaps they could at least draw comfort from the fact that one person in the room was facing seemingly greater problems than their own?

Despite the bleak outlook last week Rowan Williams managed to put together a compromise on women bishops earlier this week. Perhaps his success at crafting an agreement can give hope to his temporary cohabitees from last week? Hopefully, the funding problems which Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice providers face will be resolved with government rather than divine intervention, although at times like this I am sure they are willing to accept any help they can get.

Steve Hynes

Image: York University Conference hall- Legal Action Group

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