A commission, led by cross bencher Lord Low is calling today in a report for urgent reforms to ensure ordinary people can get the help they need to deal with employment, debt, housing and other social welfare law problems. The Low Commission was the biggest inquiry of its kind into the impact of cuts in funding for social welfare law advice.
In the report the commission calls for a national strategy for advice and legal support, to replace the current piecemeal approach, which is failing to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. It also calls for a £100m implementation fund – with half the money coming from central government, and half raised from other sources, including a levy on payday loan companies.
Other recommendations include:
– Creation of a new, cross-departmental ministerial post, to oversee implementation of the advice and legal support strategy;
– Restoring legal aid for housing cases so people can get help before they face imminent eviction;
– Urgent reform of the ‘safety net provisions’, introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act, which are proving unwieldy and unworkable.
During its year-long inquiry, the Low Commission heard evidence from around the country:
– Tameside, near Manchester – 5-week wait for appointments at local Citizens Advice Bureau; only 10% of those needing specialist help are able to be referred on (down from 50%);
– Gloucester: housing charity Shelter has closed its office, the CAB has gone into administration; while Gloucester Law Centre is still going, demand for immigration and debt advice has doubled, compared with last year;
– Birmingham: local CAB lost more than half its local authority grant (down from £590,000 to £265,000), plus £700,000 in legal aid funding;
– Sutton: CAB has seen trebling of demand for welfare benefit appeal advice in last three years;
– Swansea & Neath Port Talbot: CAB has had to axe 12 out of 36 staff posts because of 30% cuts in budget.