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Advice Services (Nottingham)

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2017

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to advice services in Nottingham.

To be a new Member is to be confronted by a series of firsts on an almost daily basis, and today is no different. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have had the privilege of leading and my first contribution to a debate with you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I hope to do it well. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about advice services in Nottingham, which is something that I feel very strongly about and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) do too. I know they were keen to join this discussion, but the Divisions have changed the timing, so I do not think that is likely. I shall crack on nevertheless.

Advice services are often unseen and unheralded in this place and in society in general. Today I want to do something about that to raise the profile of the fine services in our city. I want to publicise their excellent and vital work and look ahead to challenges down the road, which we as national lawmakers must support them in tackling. In our city a wide range of organisations offer advice to those who need it. Some operate on a city-wide basis, such as the law centre and the citizens advice bureau; some operate on a community basis, such as the Bestwood Advice Centre; and some work with specific communities, such as Disability Direct. I suspect to a certain extent I may be making a rod for my own back, because, as I started to pull together information for this debate, the wide range of terrific advice that is provided in the city and in my constituency became clear. There is a danger I might miss someone, so I hope not to cause too much offence, and I hope they will understand that the comments I make also apply to them if I miss them by name.

In a constituency such as mine where far too many residents are sadly caught up in cyclical poverty, we need lots going on. Advice on benefits, debt, housing, employment, health, immigration and much more can be a vital support system in helping people get through hard times and back on their feet. I will use the time available to detail some of the advice services already available in Nottingham and in my constituency, and to express my appreciation for the difference that they make.

I will start with the Nottingham Law Centre, which, as we can tell from the name, offers legal advice free of charge to the people of Nottingham. It was one of the first groups that I met as the Member of Parliament for Nottingham North and it was part of the inspiration for this debate. It provides advice on debt, housing, welfare benefits and employment law, as well as advice and representation to anyone attending court for possession proceedings through the duty scheme. Having spoken to Sally, one of the senior solicitors, it is clear that the latter service is what she is most proud of and what makes the biggest direct impact on people’s lives. The centre’s solicitors usually spend four days a week in court representing around 1,000 clients a year, many of whom are desperately reacting to financial emergencies that send them into rent or mortgage arrears and who have a very real prospect of losing their home.

Such problems can often be caused by changes outside of people’s control. The bedroom tax, benefits caps and zero-hours contracts all leave ordinary people struggling to get by, already unable to meet pre-existing financial commitments. Nottingham Law Centre is very proud of its success rate in this area. I am sure that everyone they have helped is incredibly grateful.

When I spoke to Sally, it was clear that the centre felt it could do much more. Funding shortages due to legal aid cuts increase workloads, and Government tendering changes mean that the scope of the advice that can be offered has reduced. For example, the centre is no longer able to provide an immigration advice service, or any advice to people who might come from outside of the city, which leads to a real risk of postcode lotteries. Over time we have seen the ability of vital organisations such as the law centre to help people in need radically diminish. That is bad for individuals and also bad for the community in general for reasons that I shall turn to shortly.

Local government has a critical role to play in the provision of advice services.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on this crucial topic. Before he moves on to local government, I want to mention immigration advice services. As the MP for Nottingham East, I have constituents coming to me all the time because of the poor level of immigration advice available, as my hon. Friend has said. The law centre does not do as much as it did, so there is an expectation that MPs can somehow give quasi-legal advice on these issues, when there is a need for real expert help of a legal character, and we are desperately short of that, certainly in Nottingham.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know he feels strongly about this issue and I share his concern. In a diverse city such as ours, with the new and emerging communities that we have, there is a gap and it is not clear what is meant to fill it.

As I said, local government has a critical role to play in the provision of advice services. Nottingham City Council has played an admirable role, again in incredibly difficult circumstances, when it comes to budgets. With significant cuts and the extraordinary pressures that an ageing and growing population can put on council budgets, it might have been tempted to deprioritise this area. After all, it is not a universal service and—dare I say—not a vote winner. However, the council has not done that.

I played a small role in this area in my previous life as a councillor: my commissioning committee commissioned the new advice set-up. I say that more as a declaration of interest than an attempt to take any credit, because I really cannot do so.

The city council has consolidated its contracting, brought organisations together in a consortium and commissioned six of them across the city—the law centre I mentioned is one, as are Bestwood Advice Centre and St Anns Advice Centre, which both work in my constituency—to provide support in the city. Other communities might benefit from that model, and Ministers might benefit from looking at it also.

Having high-quality support is of course very good for individuals in their time of need, but actually it is good for all of us in the community, because the financial impact is considerable. Over the first half of this financial year alone, the advice services have supported city residents to access more than £3.6 million in benefits to which they are entitled and to tackle more than £0.5 million in debt. They have dealt with nearly 3,000 inquiries, and more than 1,000 cases have been taken up directly. Of course, behind every pound and penny is a human being starting on the road to get out from under their burden. Their mental health is improved and hopefully their life is changed; and as I said, for us as local taxpayers, the work is extraordinarily good value.

Disability Direct Nottingham is a group I know well; it is based in Basford in my constituency. It is a little different from the other services that I have spoken about, in that it works with a community of identity. It was born out of a goal to make a difference for a specific group of people—people in Nottingham with disabilities. It is the only information and advice service that caters specifically for all manner of people with a disability in Nottingham, and it prides itself, rightly, on the considerable impact that it makes for disabled people, older people and carers residing in the city and beyond.

In preparation for the debate, we were in touch with Charlotte Throssel, who I have worked with for some time. She is the services manager and makes the bulk of the decisions in response to what is needed. We asked her to summarise what the staff and volunteers spend most of their time doing for the users. I do not have enough time now to talk about those things, because they are incredible; if it can be imagined, they are doing it. Suffice it to say that that organisation exists to help and will do so in any way it can, whether that means supporting its clients with legal proceedings, giving advice on welfare, assisting with forms or even helping in the garden, as I believe happens sometimes, too. The organisation gets more than 5,000 inquiries each year and has helped to secure almost £0.5 million in backdated benefits. Its success rate at appeals and tribunals—I find this staggering; perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was—is 84%, so five out of every six times, it succeeds. I think that that says something about the system that it has come up with.

That is being done with funding from the Big Lottery Fund or through fundraising or donations; the council helps with premises. Disability Direct works really hard and does an outstanding job with six staff members—only two full time—and almost 70 volunteers. I can also say, from personal experience, that Charlotte puts on a mean barbecue.

That is a taste of the breadth of what is going on, whether services are working citywide, in local communities or with specific groups of people. There are other organisations, which we encountered and worked with in preparing for the debate: My Sight Notts, the Wellbeing Hub and Nottinghamshire Deaf Society. As I said, I am making a rod for my own back today, because doubtless I will have missed someone and I would not want them to think that they were not appreciated, because they really are. Nevertheless, in having these conversations about what is going on, I think that three clear challenges emerged and are worthy of our consideration.

First—this point is probably not revelatory—advice services cannot always meet the demand for their services. Of course that is because there is lots to do in a community such as mine, but one significant limiting factor, which I hope Ministers can consider, is the quality of information that comes out of public services, which can lead to people getting into a mess or confusion. Sometimes there is unclear information, distorted by inaccurate reporting in the media, and it leads to confusion and a great call on advice services.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I pay tribute to the citizens advice bureaux, which do fantastic work across my constituency. Their work is set to become even more vital as universal credit is rolled out, particularly given that the Government’s helpline charges 55p a minute. Does my hon. Friend agree that as their role becomes even more important, they must be on a secure financial footing?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; I agree completely. At the moment—I will turn to this shortly—there is a blizzard of funding that has to be pulled together, and each of those sources is under pressure, for various reasons. At a time when, as my hon. Friend says and as was said in this place earlier today, the Government are charging 55p a minute for people to get advice from those who run the service, clearly they are likely, especially when in financial distress, to reach out to others who do not do that. There is a struggle meeting the demand, because of a lack of information. Clearer advice, more consistency and easier access to information would reduce confusion, and reduce the front-door work they have to do to manage expectations and guide people where to go. That would free up more time, money and effort to work on the core cases.

Secondly, funding is a persistent challenge. Our advice sector in Nottingham is pinned together with council resources, EU money, lottery funds and donations of time and money. All of those deliver excellent value. There is a £10 return for each £1 spent regarding benefits that individuals are entitled to, and £3.50 for each £1 spent working on debt relief, but all of those are under pressure for various reasons. As we head into the Budget, Ministers should be mindful of the cumulative impact and ripple effect of their cuts, especially unseen cuts, such as those to local government, which then go through different commissioning committees and end up with changes that perhaps were not meant in that way.

Finally, I want to use my remaining time to talk about universal credit, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield raised. Our analysis indicates that by the end of this Parliament, if it runs a full term, there will be some 23,000 families receiving universal credit in Nottingham North. We know that experience from pilot communities such as Newcastle has shown that universal credit roll-out has led to considerable hardship, with 85% of council tenants on universal credit being in arrears. That has the unintended consequence of putting strain on the housing revenue account. That challenges local government budgets and actually reduces their ability to build new homes. It is a decreasing spiral. I hope Minsters will heed calls from Opposition parties, national charities and even their own Members, to delay this, while they at least work out the very real challenges in the system.

I just want to tell a story that I picked up from Citizens Advice about a woman called Claire. She was in great distress when she first met an adviser and it was very difficult for her to talk about her situation. She had left her home, because her now ex-partner had become violent and physically assaulted her. On top of that physical and emotional trauma, Claire now had to find a new home, apply for benefits and get herself on a new footing for her new life. She found a new home and applied for universal credit, but she waited over eight weeks for her first payment. She had been working a little bit in a local shop and was paid weekly, but she did not have any savings. She was unable to make rent payments properly for two months, leaving her in arrears, and she was also in arrears with her council tax. She had some credit card debt, which she was unable to service during this time. At the end of this two months of waiting, she was severely in debt and being threatened with eviction proceedings, as well as the emotional trauma she already had. During that two-month waiting period, she got by on food bank vouchers and tokens for electricity and gas, just to keep going. However, she now faced mounting debt, with no real way to tackle it. When her universal credit payment came through, she had hoped to get back on her feet and start to set herself up again—in line with what the Prime Minister said the system ought to be doing—and to make some formal arrangements to pay back her debt. However, the paperwork —no discussion with her—stated that 40% of her entitlement would be deducted to cover rent and council tax arrears. That meant that Claire had £30 a week to cover food, gas, electricity and other household essentials, leaving her in a perpetual cycle of borrowing to cover her essential needs, and the system has proven very inflexible as she tries to get herself back on to her feet. There are too many Claires and if we continue on this course at this pace, there will be many more.

I do not want to conclude my contribution on a negative note. I hope I have shown to colleagues the incredible range of advice services in our community, wonderful things done under the most difficult circumstances for those who really need it. I came to this place because I want to give my life to the service of others, and when I see that in my community too it really inspires and motivates me to work even harder. Those people represent the best of my city and most days their work goes unheralded and unseen, but not this day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing this debate, his first in Westminster Hall, and first of many, I have no doubt. I congratulate him on his interesting and compelling speech. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to set out how the Government support the Citizens Advice service and the importance of having access to free, confidential and impartial advice. I have seen for myself in my own constituency the difference that such support can make to people and families, often the most vulnerable, often, as the hon. Gentleman ably pointed out, in crisis and under immense pressure.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Citizens Advice Nottingham and District, Nottingham Law Centre and Nottingham City Council’s welfare rights service as examples of success, and I share his appreciation of the work of those agencies and similar advice services across the country.

The services are indeed well used. In 2015-16, more than 8,000 people received advice and support from Citizens Advice Nottingham and District, most of whom said they could not have resolved their issue without receiving that help. It is important to appreciate that these advice services not only help people to resolve financial difficulties but have a profound impact upon people’s lives, sometimes improving their health and reducing stress as a result of the help they offer.

Also in 2015-16, more than 2,900 clients were provided with free legal advice by Nottingham Law Centre on issues ranging from debt to welfare, and from benefits to housing. The centre succeeded in getting nearly £67,000 worth of debt written off for its clients, and I know that in one of the other instances that the hon. Gentleman cited—I think it was the Disability Nottingham case—the centre had a tremendous success rate in supporting vulnerable people through tribunals.

The welfare rights service delivered by Nottingham City Council also helps to provide free, confidential and impartial advocacy and advice to citizens from across the city, including making home visits to those people who are unable to attend an appointment.

I must say one thing in respect of the legal aid position that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, in particular the very sad case that he mentioned involving Claire. The Government are committed to ensuring that legal aid continues to be available, particularly in the most important cases, such as those involving domestic violence or if children are at risk of being taken into care.

Given the sensitive issues that those services cover, it is important that they are provided independently of Government, so that their clients can trust that their problems will be treated impartially and in confidence. Also, as many of those clients’ cases relate to interactions with Government agencies or services, such as benefits, it is important to note that the local citizens advice bureaux operate independently and are funded from a variety of sources. In the main, however, they receive their core funding from the local authority in which they are located.

On that point, the Minister is right to talk about the need for agencies to be at arm’s length from the Government and from Ministers, but I do not think that that necessarily negates the idea of their having some kind of statutory force, to give them that sense of being a function that is supported by society as a whole. If we cannot have that, we must recognise that this is a real “invest to save” situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) pointed out, for every £1 invested in advice services the Government can save a considerable amount later down the line. It is because these services exist in a sort of non-specific, non-legal context that we sometimes rely too much on charity to underpin advice, rather than making it a right that people have.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I would not want to negate the role of charities and local self-help groups, which play a huge role in their communities, but there is a role for Government to ensure that some impartial, independent advice is available. Through the Citizens Advice national agreements that we have, my Department funds Citizens Advice nationally. For example, helping people in the area of fuel poverty and energy advice is a statutory service that Citizens Advice offers; the service is funded by Government, but the advice is given impartially and independently of Government. Therefore, it is important to note that Citizens Advice operates independently, even though it is funded by our Department to a certain extent, to help it to meet its resourcing needs.

It is the local authority, not central Government, that is better placed to make decisions about advice provision in its local area, based on local priorities and need. However, we must remember that local authorities are independent of central Government. They are responsible for their own finances and recruitment, and are accountable to their local electorate. So, when it comes to spending or resourcing, however difficult the decisions are, it is for local authorities such as Nottingham City Council to make those decisions. I hope that, whatever the outcome, the people of Nottingham will still be able to access free, independent advice, and that the national body, Citizens Advice, which is funded by my Department, will help to ensure that that continues to be the case.

We know and understand that some people are vulnerable, and that some will need more support than others. That is why the Government continue to spend around £90 billion a year on a strong welfare safety net. One example of that is our troubled families programme, which is helping to turn around the lives of 400,000 people. I know that it is doing very important work in Nottingham, and under the priority families programme led by Nottingham City Council, 1,200 families have already been helped to turn their lives around, and a further 3,480 families are engaging in the programme.

To reiterate, the Government remain committed to, and supportive of, the right to free, independent advice. As I have said, that advice is best delivered by independent organisations at the local level, although I am mindful of the need for the Government to continue to play a role on a statutory basis, as I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie). However, those with the knowledge, expertise and experience are helping people from all walks of life on all manner of issues.

Clearly, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North pointed out, a huge amount of good work is being done by the people of Nottingham, the staff and the volunteers in providing this vital work and support. I salute them all. I hope that the local Government will continue to recognise and support their hugely valuable work for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.