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Not-for-profit Advice Sector debate

6th March 2012

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a debate on the role of not-for-profit organisations such as Citizens Advice and prioritising legal aid to help those who are most vulnerable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate, and on her contributions to a vigorous and informative discussion of an important issue. I understand and share the strong concerns expressed, and the high level of interest, in debates on the value of the not-for-profit advice sector throughout consideration of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in both Houses. Today, I would like to deal with the concerns expressed on behalf of Jeannie, Sharon and other vulnerable people, and assure the hon. Lady that we have listened and are taking action.

The Government value highly the important role of not-for-profit organisations such as Citizens Advice and law centres in delivering advice services locally. The Government want to support such organisations, particularly at the current time. Reforms to the legal aid system will, as the hon. Lady is aware, reduce the organisations’ income, and my colleagues throughout Government and I appreciate that times are difficult for free advice services, which are understandably concerned about their future. Given the financial climate, however, any Government today would have to take difficult decisions and make major changes to the services that they fund. Legal aid expenditure is approximately £2.2 billion per annum, which is 25% of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. Legal aid must play its part in fulfilling the Government’s commitment to reduce the fiscal deficit and return this country’s economy to stability and growth. The proposed legal aid reforms therefore have the additional aim of achieving substantial savings.

We are not making the changes lightly, although the importance of seeing them in context cannot be overstated. Our structural deficit, which we inherited from the Opposition, and their mismanagement of the economy present a range of challenges to our economy and to our ethos on public service provision. I am, however, confident about, and stand by, the criteria that we have employed in determining what areas should attract funding under the Bill.

In the Bill, we have sought to define clearly those areas that the Government believe should attract public funding in future under a reformed legal aid scheme. That will allow at least some certainty as to the areas in the legal aid market that we will continue to support and that, I hope, will thrive. We are aware and fully acknowledge that there will be implications for future provision: fewer legal aid providers are likely to be needed; the methods through which many services are delivered will change; organisations might change; and advice provision will also change. That is alongside other changes to the legal market, such as alternative business structures. The full impact assessment has been published, but the hon. Lady also asked about the knock-on costs, and it is true that those are sometimes difficult to define because they often depend on behavioural change, such as people switching from family courts to mediation.

The result of the changes is not necessarily the decline of a thriving legal aid market; the market can still thrive if it adapts. We must acknowledge the need for acceptance and recognition of the fact that the market will be different. We must consider constructively how best people can be assisted, and how sustainable voluntary organisations can be run under the new framework. The important issue is whether services will be available for clients, rather than whether that service is provided by any particular type of provider in a particular way. The expansion of telephone-based advice, to which the hon. Lady referred, will create contracting opportunities, and we already have examples of providers, including those from the not-for-profit advice sector, that run face-to-face contracts alongside centralised telephone advice contracts as part of their business model.

Yvonne Fovargue: How would the Minister answer Steve Hynes from the Legal Action Group, who said that if we wanted to create a system that removes access to advice, we should make it a telephone-based system?

Mr Djanogly: I have spoken to the gentleman about that, as I have to the hon. Lady, who made the same point in Committee. The Government are determined in their view that telephone advice, if used appropriately and provided for the right clients, can be a helpful service, not least for those who are disabled or live in remote rural areas, for instance.

Andrew Percy: I appreciate what the Minister is saying. As he must know from his surgeries, many constituents come to us and say that the last thing that they want to do is have a telephone conversation with us—they want to see us face to face. Can he assure us that residents who need assistance and do not want to access it down the telephone line—a lot of older people in particular have problems with that—will continue to be able to get face-to-face advice?

Mr Djanogly: The telephone service will be used only in a limited number of areas, so that we can see how it works, and yes, if someone is unsuitable for receiving telephone advice, perhaps because of their age, the alternative of face-to-face advice will be available.

I am pleased to see good examples of not-for-profit organisations acting innovatively, forging partnerships with other organisations and adapting to the changing face of advice provision. 1 accept that the proposed reforms are likely to be particularly challenging to the not-for-profit sector. Legal aid, however, is only one of many funding streams that citizens advice bureaux and law centres receive. For example, legal aid represents only 15% of the income of citizens advice bureaux. I also point out that our scope changes have not yet happened and will not do so for another year, giving us time to look at the changing needs of the market. Indeed, one of the major issues for the sector is changes to other sources of funding, such as local authority cuts, which are determined by local priorities, not central Government.

Toby Perkins: I am encouraged by the Minister’s suggestion that he has an open mind when it comes to listening to the concerns of the not-for-profit sector. I recognise what he says about the need to reduce the overall legal aid bill, but he will be aware of amendment 11, which was proposed in the House of Lords and which deals with social welfare law. My concern is that if the Minister comes through with this policy without identifying an alternative, the most vulnerable people, who are used to being on benefits and suddenly find that they are not eligible, will be desperately marooned. Will the Minister give us a sense of who might pick up the slack in those cases? If not, will he consider giving Government support to that amendment, rather than scrapping the entire savings proposals?

Mr Djanogly: No. What I will do is give the hon. Gentleman a clear idea of what the Government propose to do to ensure that that slack, as he called it, will not be forgotten or missed. We are committed to ensuring that people will continue to have access to good-quality, free advice in their communities. That is why the Government acted, and set up the £107 million transition fund to support the voluntary sector in managing the transition to a tighter funding environment. That is why we also launched the £20 million advice services fund, and a Government-wide review of free advice services. The advice services fund was always intended to provide support to the sector in the short term only, with the Cabinet Office review of the advice sector providing longer-term solutions. I can advise the hon. Member for Makerfield that the review is expected to conclude later this spring, and it will provide recommendations on proposals to secure the long-term sustainability of the sector.

As the hon. Lady said, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced only yesterday that the Budget statement will set out that further additional funding will be made available to the not-for-profit advice services in the current spending review period to support the Cabinet Office review, so that advice services are sustainable over the long term.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I very much welcome the Cabinet Office’s work on changing the advice landscape. Will the Minister assure me that when discussions are held with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, it is encouraged to ensure that it passes the new money down to the local citizens advice bureaux, which is where most people experience the organisation’s high-quality work?

Mr Djanogly: Yes. The work that is being done through the Cabinet Office is looking at local CABs. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and also for highlighting that NACAB is funded quite separately from local CABs. It is mainly funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; that is bringing a new player into the debate. That point also highlights the complexity of the debate. One of the problems we have had in the run-up to and passage of the Bill was confusion when people misunderstood the nature of legal advice, and the general advice that is the core of CAB provision, which we are so keen to maintain.

With regard to the issue of existing contracts for law centres—community legal advice centres and networks—which was raised by the hon. Member for Makerfield, we will honour those contracts and review how best to implement the Bill when contracts need to be re-let. The needs of Manchester and the local area will be carefully considered as part of that review.

Yvonne Fovargue: I do not think there is a lot of confusion between generalist and specialist help in the minds of the people who use and provide it; it appears to be just in the mind of the Government. The specialist help is needed for areas such welfare benefits. The Government have tried on many occasions to say that that is about simple form-filling. It is not. There are 8,690 pages of Department for Work and Pensions guidance given to its decision makers.

Mr Djanogly: As the hon. Lady knows, where there is a risk to someone’s security or liberty, or where someone is at immediate risk of losing their home, we are not ending legal aid for civil advice. There seems to be a misconception that we are taking away all legal aid for civil advice. That is simply not the case. We are prioritising our help for those who are most vulnerable, given the overall funding that we have to work with.

I can confirm that my Department is working closely with colleagues across Government, and particularly with the Cabinet Office, which is leading on this area, to support this important cross-Government work. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are aware of the ongoing work; I hope that will assure hon. Members that the Government are listening to the concerns being voiced about the not-for-profit sector, and are urgently taking work forward to address those concerns.

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