Monday, 28 February 2011

Advice service cuts

Manchester City Council has announced the complete closure of its in-house advice service, Manchester Advice, as part of £40m in cuts to its adult services department.

Manchester Advice was one of the first such council advice services established in the country. Around 100 staff will be made redundant and LAG understands that they are currently being asked to consider taking voluntary redundancy. A total of £1.68m will be saved if the service closes.

Manchester Advice offers free, confidential and independent advice on benefits, housing, debt, and consumer issues. Last year it assisted 80,000 Manchester residents and brought them around £30m in income from entitlements and savings. A letter, seen by LAG, sent to Manchester City councillors by a campaign group called Access2Advice argues that while the group is 'reconciled to share the pain over cuts', the complete closure of Manchester Advice is 'a scorched-earth policy which will bring devastating effects for many tens of thousands of vulnerable Manchester residents'.

The council’s paper detailing its budget proposals argues that the services in the city provided by the Community Legal Advice Service (CLAS) will provide an alternative to the directly run council service. The CLAS was established last year and is led by Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau Service. It is funded by the council and the Legal Services Commission. However, if the government’s planned legal aid cuts go ahead the CLAS would lose much of its income from legal aid next year. This would leave Manchester residents without advice on benefits, debt and other civil legal issues. Clearly a rethink of the council's strategy for advice is needed as the plan to close Manchester Advice could not have envisaged that legal aid funding for advice would be cut.

Birmingham Citizens Advice Bureau Service seems to have avoided a funding crisis which could have resulted in the immediate closure of its five open-door services in the city. The city council has withdrawn its £600,000 grant to the bureaux. However, after meeting with councillors, the Citizens Advice Bureau Service withdrew its threat to immediately close its five offices in the city after being given assurances regarding a new council grant pot for advice services. LAG understands that around £300,000 will be made available by the council to fund such services in the city later this year, but this will still mean a large cut for the bureaux.

LAG is calling on the government to conduct an urgent review of legal advice services in social welfare law jointly with the not for profit legal advice sector. Local government as a whole has to find 28 per cent in cuts and it is clear that advice services, as they are mainly non-statutory, are in the firing line. Through a combination of council and legal aid cuts we believe many areas like Manchester and Birmingham will lose the advice centres which provide a lifeline for thousands of people with housing, benefits and other common civil legal problems.

Image: South Manchester Law Centre. The Law Centre now provides a much reduced service after losing most of its funding from the city council last year.

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