Thursday, 3 May 2012
Worries over advice sector fund
Speaking at a meeting in parliament organised by the campaign group Justice for All on 1 May, civil society minister Nick Hurd was evasive on how and when the £40m allocated for advice services in the budget would be spent. He was speaking on the same day that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill received royal assent, and admitted that the cash was earmarked to help advice charities deal 'with the legal aid cliff'.
In comments about the £16.8m Advice Services Fund which has already been distributed to 301 advice charities in England, Nick Hurd said: 'At the time of very little money being around we did find at the centre some money to plug the gap left by local government.' He told the meeting, which was well attended by parliamentarians and representatives from the advice sector, that the government’s advice review would be published later in the year: 'There will be a compelling story to tell on how we can configure services to meet demand.' He also acknowledged that 'government needs to be a lot smarter in reducing demand in the system', and argued that the £40m pot for the UK, which will be spent over the next two financial years, should be used 'to incentivise local support and funding' for advice services and to 'help deliver a better integrated system', but not to support 'business as usual' for the sector. The minister would not give details on the criteria or timescale for applications to the fund saying only that the government 'needs a bit of time to plan to get it right'.
The meeting heard from Mike Dixon, the assistant chief executive of Citizens Advice, who was critical of the way in which the first tranche of money from the advice fund had been distributed. He argued that the funding should be allocated to national organisations such as Citizens Advice to identify services at a local level and that it had been difficult for the Big Lottery Fund (BLF), which was responsible for administering the first round of grants, 'to make good decisions' because of its lack of knowledge about local advice agencies. 'The advice networks know where the problems are', he said. He also pledged that if Citizens Advice was to distribute the cash it would not charge to do so, unlike the BLF.
The event was chaired by the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd, and parliamentarians in the audience included Conservative MP Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Andy Slaughter. Andy Slaughter, the shadow justice minister, stressed the importance of monitoring the impact of the cuts which will be implemented next year and praised Justice for All for 'shifting the public mood on legal aid from how much lawyers get paid to the impact on clients'.
Ruth Hayes, director of Islington Law Centre, told the meeting that her service could not cope with the demand for advice; 200 clients are seen face to face and around 1,000 get help over the phone each week. She said the Law Centre’s clients often faced a 'number of complex problems which require in-depth work' and that it is important that the resources are in place 'to support clients throughout their cases'.
It should not be forgotten that the Advice Services Fund will make up less than a quarter of the cash which the charitable advice sector is losing from legal aid. LAG believes the government is correct to take some time to ensure the right decisions are taken on the strategic use of the cash available, but if local advice centres are going to have any chance of planning for a future without legal aid funding, announcements on the criteria for funding and the application process will have to be made sooner rather than later.
Image: LAG - minister Nick Hurd speaking with Mike Dixon from Citizens Advice.