Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Kerry McCarthy.)
I am delighted to have secured this important debate, not only to celebrate the achievements of citizens advice bureaux in the past 70 years, but to look at their current difficulties and the challenges that they face in the future.
The CAB service began life in 1939 as a national wartime emergency service. On 4 September 1939, the day after war was declared, 200 bureaux opened their doors for the first time. From the outset, the service’s twin aims of providing advice to individuals about their problems and using evidence gathered during the advice process to influence policy in practice were evident. In those early days, evidence from the bureaux secured extra clothing rations for pregnant women and extra cheese rations for gardeners involved in “digging for victory”.
As the blitz and flying bombs wreaked havoc on the civilian population, the first CAB advisers were busy dealing with the consequences of air raids. They were tracing missing persons, arranging the evacuation of women, children and elderly people, and helping with war damage claims for people who had lost family members and their homes.
Unexpectedly, by the end of the war there was an increase in demand for the service. Family problems, poor housing and the need to get to grips with the new national health service all presented challenges. In the 1950s, the housing shortage, overcrowding, the end of rent controls and the new availability of hire purchase led to mounting debt problems and a huge hike in CAB case loads.
The 1960s saw no relief to housing problems as rents rocketed, many people lived in slum conditions and homelessness rose. At that time, a quarter of the problems dealt with by CAB were housing-related. In the 1970s, family and personal problems remained the No. 1 issue, but housing inquiries were up 16 per cent. following the Rent Act 1974, which extended protection to furnished tenants. However, inquiries about consumer problems rocketed 46 per cent. following the consumer boom and new consumer protection legislation in 1974.
The two recessions of the 1980s led to a dramatic rise in inequality. Inquiries about debt and benefits doubled, in line with unemployment. However, it was the debt stemming from easy credit that created a major growth area; indeed, it became the single most pressing problem for CAB clients in the late 1980s.
By the 1990s, CAB was dealing with more than 7.5 million inquiries a year. Benefits, including the new child support scheme, became the No. 1 issue and changes to disability benefits and cuts in support for asylum seekers generated a huge number of inquiries. By the turn of the century, freely available credit, combined with a lack of affordable housing, caused debt, bankruptcy and repossessions to soar. Therefore, the demand for specialist advice about money escalated.
So, for 70 years, citizens advice bureaux have been providing a free, confidential, independent and impartial service, face to face and via the telephone, and now they also provide the service online and by e-mail. That is a truly amazing record. Each year, 6 million advice issues are dealt with by CAB and 1.9 million clients are advised by local bureaux. There are also 8.8 million visits to the public information and advice website. Citizens advice bureaux are a lifeline. Furthermore, a remarkable 86 per cent. of service users are satisfied with the service and £86 million is the staggering figure for the estimated value to the economy of people volunteering with the Citizens Advice service.
Debt, benefits and tax credits, employment and housing remain the key issues on which advice is sought. Providing help might involve just assisting people to fill in benefit application forms, supporting them to exercise their statutory rights, negotiating with their creditors or offering financial education.
The Government have long acknowledged the vital role of CAB and 78 per cent. of the national funding for Citizens Advice comes from Government grants, mainly from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In recognition of the increased number of people coming to Citizens Advice for help during the recession, central Government allocated additional resources of £10 million to bureaux this year, to facilitate increased opening hours. That money was very welcome, but the additional hours of advice project did not meet the needs of some of the most hard-pressed bureaux. For instance, my local Moorlands service could not take advantage of that opportunity, because current funding and staff resources were insufficient to support the changes required to expand the service, even with the additional money from the Government.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The problem that she has just outlined is crucial. We seem to be getting fewer and larger bureaux, particularly in rural areas. Therefore, does she agree that rural outreach is an issue that local and central Government might want to examine to see how outreach services can offer support in rural areas?
Absolutely. That is particularly important as transport can be so difficult in rural areas; that is where the online and telephone services come into their own. However, clients, particularly elderly clients, often prefer face-to-face contact, so such contact is really important too.
Each local citizens advice bureau is an independent charity. Each relies on the support of a wide range of funders, including central and local Government, charitable trusts, companies and individuals. Although everyone from the Prime Minister to primary care trusts and local councils talks up the important role of the third sector in facing current challenges, there appears to be very little additional money available locally to help the sector to continue to provide existing services or to enable it to be innovative.
My hon. Friend painted the statistical picture of CAB, although they themselves acknowledge that millions of people cannot get a slot to see an adviser and that their phones often go unanswered. At a local level, almost half of the money for CAB comes from the local authorities, which, as we know, will be cash-strapped in the years that lie ahead. Therefore, is there not a risk that those queues to see advisers and those unanswered calls will grow in number, to the extent that they damage the reputation of CAB? Furthermore, the additional hours of advice project that the Government are funding ceases 17 weeks today, on 31 March 2010. Let us hope that the Minister has something good to tell us in his winding-up speech.
I certainly agree with that. It is not just local authority funding that is an issue, but the fact that local authorities are unwilling to provide core funding. Often, local authorities are looking at new projects and innovative arrangements rather than the core funding that they need to provide help to those people coming across the threshold of citizens advice bureaux every single day.
I also commend the hon. Lady for securing this timely debate.
Like the hon. Lady, I have an excellent local Citizens Advice service in east Hertfordshire. In the last year, the advisers, despite being largely voluntary, have helped more than 9,600 people. However, I have a question for her. She talks about the balance of funding. It seems to me that the balance of national funding is skewed heavily to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which may have understandable issues, but the real issue for the public—our citizens—is delivery of the service on the ground. The worry is that the split in value is not being shown in the value that people experience on the ground. Does she agree that it is important that that should change, because although we may need an effective centre, the most important element of the service—namely, the front-line volunteers—has to be able to do its job, particularly in troubling times?
The national service and the local service are equally important. At the start of my remarks, I made it clear that citizens advice bureaux have two approaches: to deal with issues on the ground and individual problems, and to gather from that advice service the lessons for policy making and development of programmes. The two approaches are complementary and I would not want to say that one is more important than the other.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way in this excellent debate. Of course, we all have good bureaux in our constituencies, and Chorley’s is second to none in the service it provides, but ultimately bureaux rely on the national association for specialist advice, such as on insurance and everything they need to ensure their own survival. Both the national association and the local bureaux are important and go hand in hand. Does she agree that we cannot afford to lose one at the expense of the other?
Absolutely, because the bureaux work to very high, nationally specified standards. We are not talking about individual bureaux doing their own thing. Their advisers are trained to a high standard, and that is controlled from the centre.
Citizens advice bureaux are a special case because they cannot charge individuals for their services. Moreover, the wide range of advice they offer to so many different types of client and their local partnership work give them a unique and valuable place in the community. Managers of local services and CAB colleagues are in great demand.
I will focus on Biddulph CAB, but the situation is the same for many other bureaux, including the one in Leek. Staff there regularly attend the local authority homelessness prevention team, community and learning partnership boards, Jobcentre Plus liaison, local community forums, local community and voluntary services, and many other events that raise community awareness of the issues they face. Such information sharing and community involvement are vital, focusing agencies and local authorities on local needs.
Local organisations want more and more input from the bureaux, but for the most part they do not want to pay for it. The exception is Biddulph town council, which increased its grant funding by 50 per cent. this year in recognition of the increased demands the economic situation was placing on its local bureau. That stands in contrast to the actions of Conservative-controlled Staffordshire county council, which has explicitly excluded core running costs from its £100,000 Closing the Gaps for Communities Fund. It is also changing the way it funds CAB so that Moorlands CAB is facing the loss of 36 of its current 54 hours of money advice from next April. That is clearly crazy, when the service is so vital.
The reluctance of funders to provide money to run core services is not confined to county councils. Most funders want to fund new, innovative projects. Biddulph CAB asked one of its current project funders to consider continuing funding the project because it had exceeded its targets and met local needs, but was told that, although an application could be made, it would go to the bottom of the pile unless it had something new to offer.
Funders often want to fund something specific, such as a particular community group or activity in an area of deprivation, but if the bureaux cannot run their core services they cannot support project work properly. For instance, most clients requiring specialist money advice or welfare benefits assistance will have been seen by a volunteer, initially through the core service. Citizens Advice is listed on most Government and other agency publications and publicity material, so the bureaux are frequently a first point of contact, but no one wants to fund those front-line core services.
However, what will happen if bureaux have to close or reduce their services, and who will pick up the pieces? If that happened, I would have a much higher case load as an MP and would lose the expertise of my local bureaux on local community and social policy issues. No organisation is better placed to gather evidence and campaign for change to improve the lives of those most in need. Most importantly, the impact on clients of bureaux closures would be devastating. It is about time we recognised the expert community role of Citizens Advice, rather than just paying it lip service.
One way we can show how much we value Citizens Advice—like other Members, I have an excellent bureau in my constituency—is ensure that those who give their time to volunteer, particularly younger volunteers, are supported in the workplace. Too often people give up volunteering because the pressures of volunteering while working are too great, but we need those people because we cannot rely only on older people to staff bureaux. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with that.
That is absolutely right. With so many young people adversely affected by the recession, it makes sense for them to be trained in such work to advise fellow young people and also to develop a CV that is impressive to an employer.
When flexible new deal was introduced to Citizens Advice 18 months ago, the Department for Work and Pensions stated that priority would be given to service provider applicants who included third-sector organisations in their delivery plans. Biddulph CAB spent much time raising awareness with all the preferred local bidders of the potential for the bureau to help them to deliver that initiative successfully: helping them to remove barriers to work, such as debt; helping with claiming work-related benefits; understanding employment rights; working out whether they would be better off in or out of work; and understanding the issues that could be barriers. Those are important if people are not only to get work, but to stay in it. However, Serco and Pertemps have now been awarded the contracts for flexible new deal locally, but sadly there is no sign of the third-sector organisation that they are supposed to be using to help to deliver that service, making it much poorer as a result.
No one denies that the bureaux deliver real value for money, and of course they also relieve pressure on local authority services. Statistics for the first six months of this year, locally and nationally, show a significant increase in the number of people seeking advice. Citizens Advice provides evidence to demonstrate both the need for and the positive outcomes of its high-quality service, but the constant struggle to rise to the challenges it faces while confronted by uncertainty over funding is taking its toll on paid staff and on volunteers.
With local authorities and the Government cutting back, and with other organisations faced with increasing demands on their funds, citizens advice bureaux are in peril. We cannot afford to lose them from our high streets or to lose the great pool of skilled volunteers who have been highly trained to carry out the demanding role of bureau adviser. I ask the Minister to assure me that the Citizens Advice service will continue to have funding at least at the current level, in view of the increased demand for its services. I also ask that he consider how we can get central Government’s vision for the role of the third sector fully taken on board and supported by statutory organisations locally. If we do not do that, we will see not only empty premises on our high streets, but many thousands of people left without the support they need to carry on during such challenging times.
In my earlier intervention I referred to the unmet need that Citizens Advice acknowledges there is, even at present. Where people have access to, and familiarity with, information and communications technology, they will get their advice online, but does my hon. Friend agree a large section of the population are digitally excluded and will not take that route to get such advice, leading to their continued social and financial exclusion? We would all be interested to hear in the winding-up speech what the Government intend to do about that problem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly as advising on debt is probably the biggest issue the bureaux face. If someone is heavily in debt, they are clearly unlikely to buy expensive computer equipment or hand-held devices that allow them to access the internet. Likewise, they are less likely to pop into an internet café to access services.
The CAB vision is simple—to help even more people than the bureaux do today. Unmet need for their help is estimated to involve more than 3 million people, and each year up to 4 million calls that they cannot answer are made to their services. Demand for the service is not expected to decline before 2014.
Citizens advice bureaux are a lifeline. I urge the Minister to help to develop a strategy to keep local bureaux alive, doing the job that they do best, which they have been doing for 70 years—serving the changing needs of our communities.
I join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate and introducing it with characteristic clarity. I do not think that I will be out of order if I say that the last time she initiated a debate in this Chamber—which I spoke in, just a few weeks ago—it was on thalidomide. The debate took place on a Wednesday, and by the Sunday the Government had run up the white flag. I hope that we have equal success in this debate.
The core issue is ensuring sustainable funding for citizens advice bureaux. All of us could give examples of the excellent work done by the bureaux in our constituencies. I have two in mine: one in Banbury and one in Bicester. Both do excellent work. As the hon. Lady said, individually they are charities and, as such, they do their best to raise money locally. However, I think that if one did a survey on Sheep street in Bicester or the high street in Banbury, most people would say that they thought that the citizens advice bureau was an extension of the public service. Bureaux therefore find it hard to raise money. A CAB is not a sexy cause in comparison with the local hospice, the young homelessness project or the Banbury branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It is a difficult ask for bureaux.
The next area of funding has generally been local government. We all have to be grown-up about this. All of us know that, irrespective of who wins the next general election, local government’s projected figures for the next few years are very squeezed. Oxfordshire county council has been having to explain to people in our county that it will have to make significant savings on its budget. The position is exactly the same for Cherwell district council.
Local government, of course, is hit by the recession just as much as anyone else. A district council still has to run a planning department, but it does not have the same volume of fees coming in from planning applications, and more people have to be employed to deal with housing benefit. That means that if the council is looking round, what tend to be squeezed are discretionary areas of spending, including grants to organisations such as citizens advice bureaux.
We must take a more adult approach to how the bureaux are funded. There is no dispute; everyone sees them as being of real value. The briefing sent to hon. Members by Citizens Advice before the debate makes the position clear. It states:
“Not surprisingly, the recession has substantially increased the number of people coming to Citizens Advice for help. Bureaux in England and Wales have seen large and rising increases in debt, employment and benefits related enquiries over the last year.
In particular, we are seeing an enormous rise in the number of people turning to us for help because they have lost their job, or are struggling with debts or having problems keeping up with their mortgages.
The most common reasons for debt were low income, over-commitment, illness or disability and job loss. But irresponsible lending, poor financial skills and increases in the cost of living had also played a significant part in people’s debt problems.”
Significantly, figures from Citizens Advice show that bureaux in England and Wales deal with 9,300 new debt problems and 8,000 new benefit problems every working day.
That is reflected in my own constituency. The Banbury CAB tells me that for the first half of this year, it received 7,300 inquiries compared with 11,000 for the whole of the previous year, and the number of individual clients whom it sees is up by 20 per cent. on the same period last year. That is largely because of the recession. There has been a substantial increase in inquiries relating to allowances for jobseekers and redundancies.
Bureaux are constantly having to scrabble around, getting grants from the Legal Services Commission or, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands said, hoping that they can persuade the Big Lottery Fund or someone else that they are doing something unique or innovative, so that they receive grant funding for what is unique or innovative. However, they have considerable difficulties with core funding.
It is time that the Government considered seriously how they manage to ensure decent core funding for citizens advice bureaux up and down the country. I should have thought that it was self-evident to the Government that the £10 million that they gave the bureaux earlier this year to facilitate increased opening hours has been put to extremely good use. An extra session late on a Monday in Banbury has enabled the CAB there to see 370 new clients just since March. Those people might otherwise have found it difficult to get into the bureau during the hours when it was open.
We cannot allow the future of bureaux to be permanently uncertain. That is very debilitating for volunteers, who spend considerable time training so that they can give very good advice. They also spend considerable time giving advice, and then they have to spend considerable time worrying about services and fundraising to keep them going.
May I reiterate that the AHA funding finishes at 5 pm 17 weeks today, on 31 March 2010? The amounts are small, but the continued tracking up of unemployment means that the cases that citizens advice bureaux deal with that relate to debt, benefits and employment will continue to track up. That must be matched by a continuation of the funding, at least for 12 further months.
I agree. Those problems will not disappear in March. Indeed, people will have continuing problems with unemployment and other consequences of the recession for many months to come. My request to the Minister is this. I appreciate that for any Department finding new money is always difficult, but it should be possible for Ministers at least to undertake to work with Citizens Advice at national level to set up a working group or working party to see how all the various pockets of money that different Departments are giving Citizens Advice can be better co-ordinated and made more sustainable.
Such a group could also ascertain how we could ensure that the CAB movement and the core activities of individual bureaux were sustained against a background of local authority funding becoming increasingly difficult. That is because for local authorities it is a discretionary spend, and at a time when their budgets are under pressure, they will inevitably have to give up or reduce discretionary spending. However much they would like to maintain it, they will have to reduce it ahead of mandatory spending.
Irrespective of the Government who are elected in March, April or May of next year, I hope that those of us who aspire to be here after the next general election will not find ourselves having to attend a debate like this next June or July in a situation in which bureaux up and down the country face wholesale difficulties. The bureaux have demonstrated the value that they give the community. They demonstrate that they give good value for money. It is time that the work of the volunteers involved was supported by consistent funding from central Government.
I shall attempt to keep my remarks short, as I know that others wish to contribute. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. We are here to celebrate the 70th birthday of a very important core service. Six political parties are represented in the Chamber today, which underlines the fact that we all agree— [Interruption.] I am coming to the redoubtable independent hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies); it is good to see him.
I will not go over the history of Citizens Advice because it has been well covered. Of the initial bureaux, three were in Wales—in Swansea, Abergavenny and Conwy. We now have 31 throughout Wales. They deal with a huge number of problems every day. My concern is about community legal advice centres, and I shall confine myself to those because of the limited time available.
The aim of CLACs was to centralise and standardise provision, but there were unintended consequences of Government attempts to privatise the advice network. For example, when the successful bidder was an outside provision company, such as the American company A4e, it threatened the existence of bureaux that had previously been in receipt of council grants. Remember that each CAB is an individual charity. As the requirements for CLACs are more stringent, if we are not careful other, smaller, third-party advice groups are also likely to lose out, or, at best, to become sub-contractors. The main bidder will salami slice the funding and contract out the work to the people who were doing it before.
There are further concerns about what will happen when the three-year contracts are up and local provision such as the CAB has been lost, but the original preferred bidder does not bid again as the contract is not sufficiently profitable. I understand that there have been problems with the CLAC in Gateshead, the original pilot. One of the main providers hit financial problems and could not get further grant support, as it would have invalidated their original tender. That led to a two-tier service being provided to local advice seekers—defeating the purpose of the new system. I am pleased to say that that does not happen in Wales.
The Welsh Assembly Government and the Legal Services Commission announced in March this year that they were concerned about the possible consequences of CLAC and community legal advice network, or CLAN, developments, and they announced a feasibility study. The Assembly Government have set a funding route, under “Making Legal Rights a Reality in Wales”, without compromising the future of third sector providers, which include not only the CAB but specialist smaller charity organisations, such as debt and benefits organisations—Speakeasy in Cardiff, for example. The original situational study took place in Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend. I am pleased to say that the Assembly Government are taking a different route on the CLAC question.
Furthermore, the Assembly Government introduced other initiatives, such as “Better Advice: Better Health”, which placed CAB advisers in primary health care settings. That holistic approach meant that when a patient came in and was diagnosed as suffering from depression caused by personal circumstances, for example, a CAB adviser was able to advise and help, rather than the patient being prescribed drugs or being put on a waiting list to see a counsellor. Even outside that progressive project, CAB advice works, as shown by the study conducted over three years by Bangor university, which showed that advice seekers were less anxious or depressed about their situation after being assisted by Citizens Advice.
Citizens advice bureaux have also received money from the Assembly Government for another programme to improve benefit take-up for families, especially those with disabled children. Many families are unaware of which benefits they can claim and do not take the full rate that they should receive. The Assembly Government have also spent £750,000 to create an integrated telephone service in Wales.
However, as others have said there are clearly problems facing bureaux. While the banks have been bailed out, the bureaux have not, apart from the £10 million, which is welcome—it would be wrong of me to say otherwise. Before the credit crunch, we knew that many people had borrowed beyond their ability to repay and, with personal debt estimated at about £1.4 trillion, the country could be said to have been drowning in debt. People need the assistance of organisations such as Citizens Advice, but, as the waiting lists show, it is not able to help everybody who needs assistance. Better funding to some areas is required. Additional central funding for my local CAB has been forthcoming, but the recession has led to huge pressures and there is no way I can see them being alleviated in the near future.
It is a fantasy to think that the need for this type of service will end once the country is back in economic growth. There will be a lag as people who have been made unemployed find their savings running out, and a human crisis as people struggle to avoid losing their homes or being made bankrupt. To deal with all that, proper funding of bureaux services is required.
Briefly, on local authority funding of services, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made the point well that where pressures on core services appear, discretionary spend will clearly be cut back.
Finally, on a personal note, I should say that my local bureau is vital. We have an energetic, young team who are constantly there to deal with any query. I know for a fact that major issues such as housing, benefits and debt restructuring are sort of Cinderella matters in any lawyer’s practice. To be honest, no lawyer in a rural setting would go into those areas—I speak as a lawyer myself—but bureaux do. They offer a valuable and specialist service. Through the good offices of George Williams and others in Dolgellau, I am kept up to speed on those and several other issues. I appreciate that the current economic climate will be with us for some years, but bureaux provide such a core service that there must be a case for direct central funding. I hope that that will be the direction of travel in due course.
I also commend the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate, which is very worth while, given the 70th anniversary that we are acknowledging. Each hon. Member who preceded me indicated the value and worth of the citizens advice bureaux in their localities and I will be no different. I have found them to be tremendously helpful, particularly in times of economic decline, when I am sure that every constituency suffers.
In Northern Ireland we have had a particularly difficult time. Factories have closed. One closed in East Londonderry and more than 1,000 people were made unemployed in the space of a few short months. The CAB arrived and set up an advice clinic to assist, and it has done so regularly. Because it does that, it is able to provide a safety net to people to ensure that they make the transition back to work. It is a somewhat longer transition, but it none the less provides them with help and assistance that they otherwise would not get.
I will be brief, but I want to dwell for a few moments on the requirement to ensure that, beyond 31 March, as has been outlined, bureaux across the United Kingdom will be able to continue their excellent work. I fully endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in an earlier intervention. Some of the problems are not about the quality of the service that bureaux provide, but about the fact that they are inundated with clients and so overwhelmed with problems that, on occasion, staff do not answer the phones simply because they are under such pressure and there are queues of people physically trying to get in.
In and of itself, that necessitates further funding. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the economic situation will probably be as bad as it is at the moment, so it is essential that we all support the CAB across the United Kingdom, although different funding arrangements will apply in the different devolved regions.
I have an excellent referral service in my area and I would hope that other hon. Members do too. The CAB does a remarkable job of trying to assist the people who come through its doors. However, it is one thing to offer the CAB advice, help and support, but it wants something more tangible: a continuation of the funding regime and, where possible, an increase in funding to deal with the consequences of the underlying economic problems facing the entire nation.
I close by endorsing what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands has done in raising this subject and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.
Like my constituents, I thank the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for raising this subject. At a time of recession, areas such as Blaenau Gwent suffer as much redundancy, unemployment and debt as anywhere else. The interesting thing is that, after 70 years, we are still talking about basically the same things. Our constituents need virtually the same help that they did in 1939—in some areas, they might need even more.
The most important thing about Citizens Advice is that it cares. People can go to other organisations or bureaux, but they will tend to get five or 10 minutes and then out they go. Citizens advice bureaux take their time. Their people are embedded in their communities, so they care about the people and the area they live in. In places such as Blaenau Gwent that is extremely important. We have heard about contacting individuals over the internet or the phone, but in areas such as mine, with an ageing population, people want personal contact—that is extremely important.
We had four bureaux in Blaenau Gwent, but we are now down to one, with one outreach. Over the years, the bureaux have closed as a result of cash restraints and constraints. Having said that, the service that remains around the country is extremely important, as so many hon. Members have said. If we think about it, we get paid for being councillors, but so many of the volunteers in the CAB do what they do for the love of it, and we must recognise that.
The CAB advisers are experts. Of course, bureaux are grateful for the money that they have had so far, and we hope that that money will continue. However, the Government and other bodies appoint advisers and consultants by the hour to look into things such as benefit reform. We should speak to the experts and pay them—we should consult CAB and pay them for their expertise. The people at the sharp end know where the problems are. We do not need management consultants to tell us where they are—the CAB can do that. Perhaps there is a role there that we can consider.
The Government have pledged that everyone leaving school will have a training or work place. When it comes to getting advice and guidance and learning about the community, there is nowhere better than the CAB, so why do we not use it and pay it for that work? That would be a wonderful opportunity for young people.
Another great thing about the CAB is that it does not matter whether someone is 10 or 90, because the CAB treat everyone the same—there is no age limit. Bureaux are an extremely important contact in our communities.
Another issue that I would ask the Government to consider is shared premises. I have spoken many times to our local authorities, which have huge buildings, but the CAB are forced to pay rents and moneys elsewhere.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. We have the buildings and the facilities, so let us do things together.
We have looked at the CAB over 70 years. The problem with grant funding is that although it can be given, it can just as easily be taken away. We must find a core fund to make sure that the past 70 years will be not the last for the bureaux, but a growing period and the basis for another 70 years and beyond.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies)—I think that I can call him my hon. Friend—and I congratulate him on his contribution. He speaks with great passion, and we all empathise with what he said. This is a timely debate. It is a celebration of 70 years of diligence and hard work, but it is also tinged with the hope that the Minister will be able to help us in a few moments.
My constituency is served by two citizens advice bureaux, one in Cardigan and one in Aberystwyth. I have worked with them on numerous occasions on not only projects and general issues, but specific individual cases, and I can testify to the expertise of their volunteers and paid workers. Cardigan CAB has told me that it has experienced a 29 per cent. increase in inquiries during the recession. As we heard earlier, that is the experience of many bureaux across the country.
Citizens Advice Cymru dealt with 298,000 individual problems in Wales in 2008-09, which is a huge figure. Some 37 per cent. of those problems were debt related and 33 per cent. were benefit related, with an 11 per cent. overall increase in client issues on the previous year. In Aberystwyth, there were 1,300 new clients and 4,100 new cases in one year. Those clients represent about 5 per cent. of the population of the town—a significant figure. The volume of cases is increasing all the time.
Citizens Advice Cymru has calculated that it has put at least £25 million back into the pockets of its clients and that it has raised the income of at least a quarter of them. According to the New Economics Foundation, that would put £75 million back into the Welsh economy. Bureaux in Wales have also assisted with £169 million of personal debt. They have negotiated with creditors, assisted clients and ensured that people can manage their debts. We can all think of the countless individuals who have come to us. Sometimes, we may not have had the expertise or specialism to deal with them, so we have forwarded them to advisers at the CAB.
The message from the debate will be that we need to continue the £10 million increased-hours funding—that is a core message. The Cardigan bureau has received that funding, which has allowed it to see an additional 470 clients by opening for longer hours, five days a week. Again, that is a significant number for a small market town. However, staff at the bureau are concerned that the funding will end on 31 March and they hope that it will be renewed so that they can meet the 29 per cent. increase in demand that they have experienced. That is the point that I hope the Minister will be able to address today.
The Cardigan bureau’s funding has come from a variety of sources. The bureau is scrabbling around for funding from different sources for different projects. Sources include the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire county councils, the Legal Services Commission, the financial inclusion fund, the National Assembly for Wales and town and community councils. The core funding from the two local authorities has amounted to £35,000 a year.
Local authority funding for bureaux in Wales amounts to about 37 per cent. of the total, compared with a laudable 8 per cent. from the National Assembly Government. However, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and others have said, the pressures on local authority budgets mean that just as more people are trying to get through the CAB’s doors, budgets are being squeezed. I had the strange experience of a constituent asking me to complain to the CAB about not being able to get an appointment to see an adviser—that is the bizarre nature of the problem. My constituent was told in no uncertain terms that there was a much broader political funding issue, but we were able to help him none the less.
Ceredigion has had a better funding settlement this year from the Assembly Government, but it still does not match the demand on services. Ceredigion is continuing to provide funding to Aberystwyth, as it did before, despite the fact that the transfer of our housing stock to a new housing association has meant that that housing association has decided not to buy the services of Citizens Advice. It is entitled to make that decision but it is not without implications. However, the reliance on local government funding in Wales has certainly been a problem, and that is true throughout the United Kingdom.
There was until quite recently some uncertainty about the Aberystwyth bureau, and among other things there was a huge wave of feeling in the community. People were collecting signatures on petitions in the street, and there were letters and e-mails urging the county council to make some transitional funding available so that a bureau could carry on in a university town of 20,000 people. Mercifully it now can, as some additional funding has been made available for the next year. I could not countenance a town of that size being without a citizens advice bureau.
The issue goes beyond debt relief, although that is critical in this time of recession. The citizens advice bureau has been co-ordinating a financial education project in the community, looking beyond the immediacy of a crisis into more general service provision. It has also allocated some funding—I think it is Assembly funding— to appoint a worker to look into benefits for children with disabilities. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) alluded to those issues. Perhaps we do not always associate such detailed project work with citizens advice bureaux, but it takes place, and that reminds us of the innovation and expertise of the staff and volunteers.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) intervened on the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands early in the debate, and mentioned the critical issue of rurality and inadequate public transport. It is an illusion to think that people in Ceredigion, or much of rural Wales, can even get to a citizens advice bureau in one of the principal towns, but our bureaux have worked hard to develop outreach facilities in other towns, so that older people, young mums and others can get to the services more readily. That is a huge issue. Departments sometimes find it difficult to develop models of service provision in rural areas, and it is also a big challenge for the third sector.
Citizens Advice Cymru has given advice from 260 locations in Wales, 47 in main offices and 161 in outreach locations. We should recognise that Citizens Advice is taking its services to people, particularly in rural settings, and not necessarily expecting them to get to the services. Citizens Advice Cymru, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned, is developing a single national advice line, to cover the whole of Wales by October 2010. That is important because of the nature of devolution, and the different schemes provided by the Welsh Assembly Government. It is also important linguistically that a service should be provided in both languages in Wales.
The message of the debate should be to celebrate the work of the excellent volunteers who give their time in a spirit of public service. I hope that the Minister can respond to them positively—and the wider community, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this important debate. I am glad of the opportunity to speak. We have heard from hon. Members who represent Welsh and rural constituencies, and constituencies in all parts of the country, and I want to speak for inner-city constituencies, which have their own particular needs, for which Citizens Advice is vital.
I have, in 22 years as the Member of Parliament for Hackney, worked closely with the citizens advice bureau, and I and my constituents have had reason to be grateful for its dedication and the high quality of its legal advice. Such a constituency, with a very diverse community, is often prey—I say this with all due respect to the solicitor among us—to shoddy legal advice from so-called immigration advisers and legal advisers. The citizens advice bureau is the one place where my constituents, some of whom are from highly marginalised communities, and whose first language is not English, can go to get disinterested and high-quality legal advice; that is not always possible on inner-city streets.
The bureau is a particularly valuable resource in Hackney, which is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. We are ranked as the most deprived area in England, according to the indices of deprivation 2007. The demand for the service is always high, and queues or inability to get appointments are an issue. However, that is not caused by the citizens advice bureau. It is a funding problem. The Hackney bureau has done its best to maintain its services. As other hon. Members have said, good advice can change people’s lives. My constituency’s citizens advice bureau gives more than 10,000 Hackney residents a year help that they might not be able to get anywhere else. It has prevented evictions and worked to increase local people’s income through benefit checks. It has helped with claiming benefits and challenging decisions. Clients can also feed back into the service advice that helps with health and well-being, as well as helping to resolve problems and tackle poverty.
Other hon. Members have talked about the importance of the volunteers. Seventy-eight per cent. of workers in citizens advice bureaux are volunteers, and they give more than £85 million of free time a year between them. In a highly materialistic and atomised society, the spirit of volunteering and helping each other, without looking for pay, is one of the most important things about the citizens advice bureaux. It runs counter to the social trends of the past 20 years, in many ways.
Hackney is a very deprived constituency, so one might think it would be the least likely place in which to find people with time to volunteer, but at any one time there are more than 50 local people who volunteer to help the community at the citizens advice bureau; we have a core of 50 volunteers. The bureau has won local victories. It was able to increase the school uniform grant in Hackney from £60 to £100, after surveying local schools and parents and finding out how much it cost to get a uniform. It had that positive input to policy as well as helping individuals.
There are nevertheless funding issues, and systemic issues about some of the problems that citizens advice bureaux are asked to take up. In the few minutes remaining to me I want to flag up the issue of old tax credit overpayment debts. Citizens Advice continues to be concerned nationally about the continuing hardship and stress of people who are still repaying tax credits that were overpaid during the first two years of the system’s operation. Next year’s pre-Budget report will be an opportunity for the Government to deal with the problem of tax credit overpayment. We all know the problems with the system. People who are entitled to tax credits are frightened off from claiming them because they have heard of people who are harassed and burdened with a debt that is not really of their making.
Members of Parliament and Citizens Advice know that the standard of administration of tax credits was very poor in the first two years of the system—a fact that the Government have acknowledged. In addition, the level of support that is now available to help people with their claims was not available in the first two years. It is wrong that claimants with overpayment debts dating back to 2003-04 or 2004-05 should still be struggling to establish the extent of and reason for their debt, and to repay the balance, which forces them further into debt.
The efforts of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to write off more old tax credit overpayment debt are welcome, but more needs to be done.
Yes; but Hackney citizens advice bureau is particularly concerned about long-standing tax credit debt, and so is Citizens Advice nationally, so I wanted to flag it up. The Minister may not be able to respond on the issue today, but I hope that he will consider it.
I value Hackney citizens advice bureau because of the quality of the advice that it offers my constituents, and the care and time it gives, which are not necessarily available elsewhere. I value it because it symbolises the idea that no man is an island in this harsh 21st century. There have been struggles, and issues have arisen at local authority and Government level, but I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands secured the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many important points that have been raised this morning.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). I also congratulate the CAB on achieving 70 years of the most fantastic service.
Several hon. Members have talked about the volunteers who make CAB—their team spirit, expertise and training, and everything done on a shoestring, of course. I can probably top the examples of care and dedication that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) in particular raised. I went to see one of my constituents, who had an industrial injury problem. His CAB adviser, who had been advising him for years, brought the papers to the guy’s home in a holdall. The number of hours of care and dedication that that volunteer had put in was astounding.
Citizens advice bureaux, a little like MPs, aim to give free advice on any issue to anyone. I work closely with the two bureaux in my constituency, in Solihull and Shirley. We often swap clients—I send them people who need the technical expertise and they often send people to me when they cannot help them any more, saying, “The last-ditch attempt is to go and see your MP.”
I would also like to pick up on the national aspect of the work of Citizens Advice, on consumer and benefits issues in particular. I secured a Westminster Hall debate on will writing and the need for regulation, for which I used Citizens Advice and the expertise of its advisers with their clients to determine their level of concern over unregulated people writing wills.
Dealing with the recession preoccupies everyone at the moment, and the citizens advice bureaux are certainly getting their fair share of the problem. The average debt of a person going to see the CAB has risen from £10,600 to £17,000-worth of unsecured debt. Every day, bureaux deal with 9,300 new debt problems; debt alone constitutes a 27 per cent. increase in case load. Eight thousand new benefit problems are received every day. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) talked most eloquently about tax credits, which are a huge problem, with inquiries up by 22 per cent. Overall, inquiries and clients are up by 17 per cent. in April to June ’09, compared with the same period last year.
I hate to be the harbinger of doom, but my reading is that, even though the Chancellor says that we shall reach the turning point of the recession at the turn of the year, that will not necessarily mean that things get better. As companies restructure, there will still be increasing job losses, so the problems are not suddenly going to get better and the need for support for people from the CAB and for funding from the Government and other bodies will be even greater.
I am very concerned about the threats to funding. We have heard about local authorities having to deal with a greater increase in demand for their services, such as housing benefit and school meals, yet having less income—from planning applications or any reserves not attracting interest because of low interest rates—to meet that demand. A council tax rise of 3.5 per cent. is suggested as the average to enable local authorities to fund all the additional demands.
My first question to the Minister concerns the £10 million-worth of additional hours funding. Can he confirm that it will be extended when the one-year period expires?
I also want to ask about the new Government legal advice centres. If funding is taken away from Citizens Advice to fund that new service, which I am sure is welcome, the bureaux could lose 70 per cent. of their Government funding. Can the Minister confirm that Citizens Advice funding will be preserved?
I want to ask about the procurement process. Procurement tenders seem to be getting bigger and bigger and less and less local, and they are more complex for small charities to fill in. We have heard the story about Hull CAB, which lost out to A4e, a private contractor. That seems to justify the whole spirit of CAB and other charities. I know that the Government do not want to interfere in the procurement process that is done by local authorities, for example, but I think that guidelines should be issued about procurement, because as we have heard from so many hon. Members this morning, citizens advice bureaux have to worry year to year and live hand to mouth to preserve their funding. They have so many better things to do instead of worrying about whether they will have funding.
I want to echo comments, particularly those of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, about core funding. Will the Minister please look at the possibility of an increase in core funding and some certainty for the future for an organisation that, for the past 70 years—and I am sure for the next 70 years—is doing a fine job for the country?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate and on the impressive way in which she presented her case on behalf of citizens advice bureaux. I would like to declare my interests, which are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
First, I praise my local bureau, in King’s Lynn, which does a first-class job. It is a vital part of the community and, indeed, a lifeline for many of my constituents. There are countless stories, which have been told to me, about how the permanent staff volunteers in the CAB have helped people get their lives back on track. I also testify to the fact I have referred constituents to the CAB, which has been incredibly responsive. Indeed, the CAB has referred a number of constituents to me, for references to Ministers, local authorities and perhaps to other quangos or utilities, so we work well together. The CAB is a pivotal part of the community, which is a point made by a number of hon. Members this morning.
Citizens advice bureaux also take pressure off other agencies, which is why I would submit that, in the scheme of things, whatever money Government spend on bureaux is more than saved through pressure being taken off other agencies. I wonder if the Minister has ever asked his Department to study that, because the results would be interesting.
I also praise the work of a number of local solicitors, not just in my local CAB but in many other bureaux up and down the country. They generously give up their time pro bono. Without that extra, specialist help, many bureaux would not be able to provide the service that they do.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the economy is facing huge challenges, which obviously means a great deal of extra pressure on citizens advice bureaux. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made that point very clearly, as did the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) a moment ago. I understand that over the past year there has been a 51 per cent. increase on the previous year in calls and visits to bureaux involving mortgage and loan arrears. That is staggering. There has also been a 22 per cent. increase in bankruptcy problems. Last year, CABs handled nearly 2 million debt cases.
I think that everyone agrees that CABs’ role in helping our constituents and the citizens of this country find a way around the problems caused by the recession is more important than ever. Now is the worst time for any pressure to be placed on their funding streams, but such pressure is inevitable as local authority budgets come under increasing strain, as I can see in my constituency.
I reiterate to the Minister what the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Solihull said about CLACs and CLANs, or community legal advice centres and community legal advice networks. I hope that he is aware of what is going on. The idea behind CLACs is undoubtedly sensible: it makes sense to assist clients with a plurality of problems in a joined-up way. However, I am concerned that no pilot has been done. So far, as I understand it, the Legal Services Commission has jointly commissioned CLACs in Gateshead, Leicester, Derby, Portsmouth and Hull, and five new areas were announced towards the end of last year in Manchester, Stockport, Wakefield, Barking and Dagenham.
Impact on the ground is already a problem. As colleagues have pointed out, the CAB in Hull has lost 76 per cent. of its funding and reduced its staff by a similar amount. It is under a great deal of pressure and may well have to close. Indeed, the law centre in Leicester has closed. The problem is the narrowness of tendering specifications. The tendering is for specialist legal aid and advice work, and the other work carried out by the CAB is not taken into consideration. We have a “winner takes all” system. I am concerned about that, because I do not think that the Government have considered it carefully enough or done enough research. Why has a proper pilot not been done? The system might have been a good idea when the economy was booming, but it is now under great pressure, and for the Government to say that CABs are incredibly important while another Government agency takes money away from them through the tendering process makes no sense.
That is just the CLACs. I am equally concerned about the CLANs, which are the networks that will apply in rural areas. So far, none have been launched, but a number of discussions are taking place with various local authorities. One problem is simply that the Legal Services Commission is bound by statute to spend its money only on specialist-level legal services. It does so through contracts with various solicitors, private companies and organisations such as law centres and CABs.
I have a memo from a county council that is in discussions with the Legal Services Commission. I cannot give the name of the county council, as that would be breaching confidentiality, but it points out—this is probably typical of county councils, and, indeed, some unitaries, across the country—that of about 15 CABs in the county, five do not yet have the specialist-level quality mark necessary to deliver legal aid, so they are out of the equation completely. One particular CAB in the county has never wanted to deliver a specialist service because it has not wanted the restrictions that an LSC contract might place on it.
One question in the county council’s confidential briefing is what would happen if the CABs did not win the open tender for the CLAN. The result would be that if the county council decided to proceed, the £350,000 it spends on CABs would be reallocated, obviously, to the CLAN. The briefing goes on to point out that the CABs that currently hold LSC contracts would lose those contracts. Basically, the bottom line in that particular county is that if the CABs do not win the CLAN contract through the tendering process, there will be mayhem among the CABs. Some will survive and some will carry on doing the 26 per cent. of their work that consists of general advice, but they will not be viable on that basis, as they will have lost local authority funding.
I hope that the Minister will consider that concern, because the Conservatives have been raising it for months now. Is it a classic case of a Department having all the right intentions—a joined-up, one-stop-shop approach to dealing with clients who have a plurality of problems must make sense—but doing it in a ham-fisted way, without a proper pilot. That makes no sense whatever. I hope that he will address that point. We are all concerned about local authority budgets and his Department’s budget, but this is a classic case of unintended consequences. It is something that the Government could do straight away: they could say this morning that the CLAC and CLAN programmes will be put on hold. The programmes will remove vital funding from a lot of CABs.
I have one final point to make on the separate issue of employment tribunal awards. I am concerned that every year, CABs across the country deal with roughly 1,000 unpaid awards— [Interruption.]
I am sure that it is not, Mr. Martlew, as mine is turned off, but I will put it over there for avoidance of doubt. It is always my policy to turn off my mobile.
Roughly £4.5 million in employment tribunal awards that have not been enforced is outstanding at any one time. The problem is that employment tribunal awards must be enforced by the individual who wins them. Employment tribunals have no powers to enforce their awards, so the employer who wins his case must take it through the county court, or through the High Court in due course, if need be. Legislation on the matter was introduced in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Section 27(43) of that Act includes a process for speeding up awards. They need not be registered in a local county court before enforcement action can be initiated, which obviously saves a great deal of money.
I understand that that particular measure has not been commenced, so the Minister might care to consider it. It has a knock-on effect for bureaux, because they must invest a lot of money in employment tribunal cases. When the individual’s award is not enforced, they must go back to the CAB for advice on how to go through the county court system, which costs a substantial extra amount. This would be a good way to save some bureaux money at the margin.
I hope that the Minister will put our minds at rest and tell us that the Government will take action. That action will not cost a great deal; in fact, it will cost no money at all, as it is just a question of talking to other Departments, particularly the Ministry of Justice, and ensuring that the two issues that I flagged up are considered as a matter of priority. I hope he will answer those points, as well as putting our minds at rest that this truly remarkable service will be fit for purpose to help our constituents to deal with their problems during this recession.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this important debate, and everybody else who has contributed. This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. I join others in congratulating the citizens advice bureaux on their 70th birthday and on all the fantastic work they have done during that period.
Given the time available, I will refer briefly to what hon. Members have said and then make some more general remarks. My hon. Friend pointed out the valuable work done in her constituency by her local bureaux and the pressure that they are under. However, I was concerned at what she said about the contracts with the Department for Work and Pensions and the flexible new deal, and the lack of third-sector involvement. I will be happy to talk to DWP colleagues about that, because the Government vision to which my hon. Friend referred is very much that the third sector should be involved in delivering such services.
My hon. Friend referred to additional help from the Government for the third sector. Help for Citizens Advice is being given not only as a result of the recession. For example, since 2001 the income generated for the third sector by the Government has risen to £12 billion—a £3.6 billion increase in recent years.
The Government’s commitment to the third sector is not merely rhetorical, but a genuine financial commitment on the level of support for the third sector, as it will help the Government to deliver their priorities. It will also help the third sector to do what it does best—reach down into those parts of our communities that the Government cannot reach. Indeed, in my former role as Minister for the third sector, I introduced a recession action plan, which in August this year brought in an extra £15 million that went to 558 organisations, and a £16.5 million modernisation fund. Help has been given over and above the help for citizens advice bureaux, to which my hon. Friend referred.
If I may, I shall return later to the question of additional hours raised by my hon. Friend. However, she said that her local CAB was not included in the additional hours project. That decision, of course, was taken by Citizens Advice, rather than the Department. We wanted Citizens Advice to decide where the additional hours should be allocated, but I take the point that the requirements could not be met for her local CAB.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) called on the Government to provide core funding for local bureaux. The Government provide core funding not for local bureaux, but for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. However, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Citizens Advice. Twenty-five years ago, at the heart of another recession, Citizens Advice was attacked by the Government for being critical of their response to the recession. It was accused of being a hotbed of radicals and revolutionaries. In reality, that is not a description of what Citizens Advice is about, so it was refreshing to hear that the hon. Gentleman recognises and supports the importance of Citizens Advice in helping people through the recession.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Government’s additional funding, which is helping 370 extra clients in Banbury. However, it is for local government to organise the local delivery of services through citizens advice bureaux. Each bureau is an independent charity, as he will know, and they are supported by the network, which is supported by funding.
Given the time constraints, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I shall try to answer as many Members as I can. If he wishes, he can contact me later about any other points.
It would be a big thing for the Government to be involved in the funding of individual local citizens advice bureaux. On reflection, I am not sure that that is the right way forward. Yes, local authorities are under pressure, but the provision of good advice services is a priority for local authorities, and they should not retreat to a position of protecting only what they directly deliver. They should consider the value that the third sector can bring to local authority priorities, and in these times advice should be a top priority.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was one of three Back-Bench Members from Wales who contributed to the debate. He made an interesting point about the changes that have been made and the so-called CLAC provisions for community legal advice centres in Wales. We were here last year, as I attended a debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on that very issue. However, in an interesting contribution, the hon. Gentleman pointed out the other way forward.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy criticised the Government for bailing out the banks rather than supporting Citizens Advice. Had the Government not saved the banking system, bureaux would have faced much longer queues of people who had lost their life savings. That is not quite the comparison that he wanted to make.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) pointed out the good role played by citizens advice bureaux in Northern Ireland, and the different funding streams available there. He also referred to the ongoing need for support.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke of the history of his constituency in the 1930s, when CAB started. Male unemployment in Brynmawr in his constituency in those days was more than 68 per cent. As he knows, my mother was growing up in Nantyglo in his constituency at the time. The Government’s philosophy in trying to support Citizens Advice in dealing with the recession is rather different from the means test that his constituents and my family faced then. However, he made a good point about shared premises. That would be a good way to cut costs, and local authorities could support bureaux in kind.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) pointed out the importance of the additional hours project. I shall refer to the project later, but it has helped more than 400 clients in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said that Citizens Advice can offer alternatives to poor-quality legal advice such as in this old joke: “If I give you £100, will you answer two questions?” to which the answer is, “Yes. What is your second question?” The number of cases of bad legal advice referred to Citizens Advice that come to MPs’ constituency offices is a matter of great concern. My hon. Friend made a valid point about bureaux helping people in a real and tangible way to deal with eviction and other problems in her constituency, and spoke of the need for continued funding. She also said that diverse communities need particular help. As part of the face-to-face debt advice project, we have budgeted for such things as translation facilities for all projects, which is important in communities such as those in Hackney in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We have also provided British sign language facilities for other excluded groups such as the deaf and so on.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that she did not want to be a harbinger of doom but went on to be one in her description of the economic outlook. Nevertheless, she passionately pointed out the importance of the services that bureaux provide. She also pointed out how they should be treated in procurement situations. However, advice is available from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in such situations, and it is supported by the Government. I agree that it is important that the third sector is taken into account in Government procurement. That is why we created the Office of the Third Sector, which can provide support.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) invited me to make up policy on the hoof. I must disappoint him, but I shall look into what he said about employment tribunal awards. I shall seek advice, although not from NACAB, on his question about the impact of CLAC and CLAN plans. He was not able to name the source of the information that he gave, but he told us how those plans might affect CAB funding for one county. I am happy to investigate that further with officials.
One point was central to the debate: Members wanted to know about funding, and particularly about the additional funding that the Government are providing at a time of recession. This year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills allocated £21.47 million of grant in aid to enable NACAB to provide the essential leadership and support to local bureaux. It will seek to monitor and maintain standards, train staff and volunteers, and help to strengthen the bureaux network. It will also provide case data and evidence from bureaux, allowing the Government to inform and communicate policy developments. Central funding is provided through the Department for that reason.
Feedback has been important in building and maintaining a modern regime, ensuring that consumers are treated fairly, empowering people and ensuring that they know their rights, and helping bureaux to cope with the significant increase in demand for local services through measures such as the additional hours project, which give additional support.
The further £10 million of funding, which lasts until 2010, is enabling bureaux to extend their opening hours for generalist advice. That funding was announced in last year’s pre-Budget report. It has been a success, but it was meant to be a temporary measure. I cannot anticipate the forthcoming pre-Budget report. However, the scheme has been highly successful: 324 participating bureaux have been able to advise a huge number of clients in a large number of locations. That is well on the way to beating the Government’s original target of helping 335,000 more local people. Although I cannot say any more today, this being a matter for the Chancellor, I acknowledge the success of the scheme in a time of recession.