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Community Legal Advice Centre and Network

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2008

1. When he next expects to meet the Legal Services Commission to discuss the roll-out of the community legal advice centre and network programme. (230370)

Lord Bach, the Minister with responsibility for legal aid, regularly meets the Legal Services Commission to discuss a range of issues relating to the legal aid reform programme, including the development of the community legal service.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she ensure that those discussions take account of the need to ensure that the roll-out of the community legal service does not prejudice the funding and operations of Citizens Advice? I recently met the excellent manager of our citizens advice bureau in Bromley, Angela Bragg. It provides a first-rate service, but there is a real fear that unless the creation of the community legal service is properly handled, it could cream off much of the funding and make some CABs no longer viable. That would be a serious loss to the communities they serve.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the role of citizens advice bureaux, not only in Bromley but throughout the country. They do an excellent job, and it is important that they continue to do so. I can assure him that in the roll-out of community legal advice centres, which will offer integrated services on debt, housing, welfare and so on, the Legal Services Commission will invite tenders for its funds and citizens advice bureaux may well be part of that process. They have certainly been part of the process up to now, and I hope that they continue to be so.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is still general concern that the Legal Services Commission does not understand the nature of the third sector and the added value that is provided by organisations such as citizens advice bureaux? They not only deal with the legal issues, but look more widely at the problems that led somebody to get into legal difficulties. They also address the need for counselling and financial advice. Frankly, the tendering of services within Government sometimes misses the point in relation to that added value.

I agree to some extent with my right hon. Friend in that those who seek legal advice often have multiple and related problems. Citizens advice bureaux and other not-for-profit organisations are often best placed to put all those together and give more rounded advice. When the legal advice centres are rolled out, the not-for-profit organisations will be part of the process, so that the recommendations about the shape of the future of the service will be in their hands. They will therefore be an integral part of the future of legal advice.

Further to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), is the Minister aware that Leicester law centre has already closed and that one county council has stated that all its CABs are now under threat? Does she agree that the community legal advice centres and the community legal advice networks are untried and untested? What happened to the pilot scheme that was promised, and will she now consider urgently the harm that could be done to our vulnerable constituents if CABs have to close? Is not this yet another example of this Government trusting a bureaucratic, public sector solution, rather than a voluntary sector group such as the CABs?

The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. Law centres are funded not so much by the LSC, but by other sources of funding. Therefore, it is not within the LSC’s gift to decide whether they remain open. Of course it is unfortunate if a law centre makes the decision to close. However, the majority of providers are adapting well to the new system, including the not-for-profit sector. The LSC is not the only funder of advice agencies, and any withdrawal of an advice agency may be rooted elsewhere. Citizens Advice has worked closely with us throughout the legal aid reform programme, and I hope that it will continue to do so.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern felt by small voluntary organisations in south Wales, in particular about the community legal advice network that is proposed to cover the Cardiff, Vale and Bridgend areas? Many of the small providers fear that they will not be able to compete, and they provide services for extremely vulnerable clients.

I am not aware of the particular difficulties in south Wales that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will ensure that Lord Bach is made aware of them. If there are particular problems, he and the LSC will look at ensuring that the people of south Wales have access to proper advice agencies.