Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to initiate this short debate on the question of how Her Majesty’s Government plan to secure the future of the citizens advice bureaux in the big society, in the light of reductions in funding.
The quality and breadth of interest across parties in this subject, represented so late on a Thursday afternoon in this House, is indicative of the breadth of support and appreciation that the CAB movement has engendered through its activities across the country.
The Prime Minister has described CABs as “fantastic”. When asked, at the very outset of his introduction of the concept of the big society, how he would best exemplify it, the example he gave was of the citizens advice bureau movement. I believe that was an apposite example.
Let me declare my interest at the outset. I had my first job as a qualified solicitor working as a citizens advice bureau lawyer. I will in due course, no doubt, be in receipt of a modest pension from the Greater London citizens advice bureau movement, so I should declare that at the outset. What I learnt from my time as a CAB lawyer, and subsequently when seeking to serve my constituents in the other place, is that the CAB movement makes a real contribution to community cohesion, and access to rights and benefits. Importantly, it brings together voluntary activity in local communities, rural and urban, in ways that enhance the whole community through access to justice, knowledge and information. Importantly, it also saves the state a very great deal of money. That is why this debate, and the question raised with the Government, are of significance: because of the current crisis in funding that is affecting the CAB movement.
The scale of that crisis was indicated by the chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, to the Public Accounts Committee, when she gave evidence in the course of its inquiry. She said that it was not just an issue of local government funding, important though that was, because without local government funding there is not the core funding that allows CABs to do what they do in the local community. The cuts in local government funding, she revealed, generally average about 10 per cent. That, by itself, would be bad enough, except that those figures mask the considerable range in the impact of those cuts. Some bureaux will lose between 60 per cent to 100 per cent of their entire local government funding.
As Gillian Guy pointed out, other bureaux, where the local authority has recognised the very real contribution that local CABs make to the delivery of their services and have left their funding intact, will face a crisis because 25 per cent of some of their funding comes from the legal aid fund. As noble Lords well know, legislation currently going through this House and through the other place will effectively bring an end to that funding, so that bureaux will lose an additional £20 million of funding as a result.
Why am I, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, urging more public expenditure in this area? It reminds me of the pieces that appear from time to time in a certain sort of newspaper in which an alcoholic recommends temperance. I have not suddenly undergone a conversion to the joys of public spending, but the figures reveal the startling savings to the public purse that come from expenditure on advice. For example, every pound spent on housing advice potentially saves £2.34; every pound spent on debt advice could save £2.98; every pound spent on benefits advice potentially saves £8.80; and every pound spent on employment advice can save the state £7.13. CABs offer real value for money. That is why we should view the current crisis in the funding of the CAB movement as a matter that requires urgent attention from the Government.
One recognises that the Government have taken some steps, which are welcome, to bridge the funding gap. However, we should be clear about what the steps are. They all represent transitional funding. There is no offer of sustainable funding beyond the period covered by the transitional funding. I fear that the result will be a degree of uncertainty affecting the CAB movement that will make it impossible to plan for the future. People who provide real, important and significant services to local communities are now faced with redundancy. The Government have announced a review of government funding of advice, led by the Cabinet Office, and that is welcome. Of course, the CAB movement will contribute to that review, but the concern is that it should be a comprehensive piece of work that will look right across government for input. There is also concern that all those with an interest in advice provision should be engaged in the review; that we should look not for top-down models of funding advice centres—because all experience shows that they tend not to work—but for a means of funding that will allow local communities to set priorities, with funding mechanisms that are able to meet those priorities; and that any conclusions of the review should be fully funded. If they are not, I fear that the future of CABs will be bleak indeed.
I end by suggesting that we look at the communities we know best. My local CAB in Brent is faced with the reality of these cuts. What sort of clients will find themselves most affected? Brent CAB gave the example of a disabled mother who as a result of the advice that she was given on the warm home discount scheme is now able to obtain a £120 discount on her electricity Bill; and of a disabled elderly client who needed to replace her worn-out boiler and restore some warmth to her home. She was not aware of her rights or of how Carillion had failed her. As a result of the CAB she became aware of her rights and this winter she will live in a warm home.
CABs are about enabling communities. They are about enhancing lives. They do so in cost-effective ways. They involve highly skilled and qualified volunteers who require organisation and training, which costs £1,600 but produces a benefit to the community that is so much greater than that. All that requires core funding and access not just for generalist but for specialist advice, and it has to be funded.
I ask that the Government produce a joined-up approach to this, that the review be comprehensive and that we go to the Treasury to seek that that review’s outcomes are fully funded. Then we really will have a contribution made by CABs to a big society that is more than just a form of words.
My Lords, the noble Lord has confirmed the view I have always held that in every Chief Secretary there is a warm-hearted person trying to get out. It has come out this afternoon in a debate in which I judge the noble Lord has done the House a service, and I congratulate him on that.
I have never seen a speakers list that is a better list for the Whips’ Offices, particularly for the Conservative Whips’ Office, of the usual suspects—that is excluding the right reverend Prelate, of course—so there is some interest in this. I have a little history on this, so I can hardly avoid being a usual suspect. I go back a long way. In the early 1960s, as a rookie in the Conservative research department, I worked with the late Lord Barber to produce a pamphlet on consumer protection that drew attention to the parlous state of citizens advice bureaux and the desirability from the point of view of the Government of encouraging and fostering them. Happily, that has happened, and the movement has grown significantly in the intervening period.
I have some recollection of that, but I do not want to go into other people’s grief on this occasion. However, I am pleased to take the intervention from my former constituent, my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury.
I was involved with that pamphlet, and later, as a junior DHSS Minister, I remember a lot of contact with CABs. I used to go back to the department and say, “Why are our leaflets so much worse than theirs?”. Our explanatory leaflets were not good, but we got better at them. Of course, I had a lot of contact with local CABs in Braintree and Witham.
The noble Lord made one of the key points, which is that CABs were the big society in action before the phrase was ever invented. We need to bear that in mind in talking about CABs tonight. The fact is that if citizens advice bureaux did not exist, the Government would have to invent them against the background we have at the moment. In my judgment, at present that need is not diminishing but growing. I do not dispute the need for difficult decisions about public expenditure or the fact that they are going to cause pain to some degree for everybody because of the situation we are in, and I am not seeking to debate the priorities, although I have doubts in one or two areas. That is not today’s subject. The fact is that a lot of relatively poor, relatively vulnerable people will be and are being affected by these changes. They are affected by changes in the Welfare Reform Bill, the Localism Act and, not least, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which we are about to go into detail on.
I am not going to go on much longer, but I have one letter from the Cambridge CAB, which is a page and a half long. I will quote three or four sentences. Sentence one:
“We have already had to withdraw desperately needed specialist help to people with mental health problems because of the loss of County funding”.
“As you know, many CABx are already in the situation where they cannot afford to keep going”.
The last two sentences:
“You have probably seen much evidence from Citizens Advice and individual CABx about our role as Legal Aid advisers. The proposed scrapping of most of the Legal Aid budget next year will result in the loss of most of our specialist debt, benefit and housing advisers”.
Those words would be echoed by a lot of others, including law centres such as the Mary Ward Legal Centre in Camden.
I ask my noble friend not to give us all the answers this afternoon, but to take account of the fact that there is real concern here, real need, and to respond in as constructive a way as possible.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, on bringing forward this very important subject, which I am sure is going to be the subject of debates on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that is shortly to be dissected in Committee.
The English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Panel Survey: Wave 1, a report published this year by the Legal Services Commission and Ipsos MORI, under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice itself, starts with this arresting paragraph:
“We live in a ‘law-thick’ world, where the ability of people to make use of the law to protect their legal rights and hold others to their legal responsibilities underpins the rule of law, ensures social justice and helps address the problems of social exclusion”.
The key words in that passage are,
“the ability of people to make use of the law”.
The network of 394 independent advice centres manned by Citizens Advice has been critical in enabling the ordinary citizen to claim and protect the rights that have been granted to him by successive Governments in the name of social justice. Sixty-four per cent of its 28,000 staff are volunteers, the annual value of whose contribution to the work of the citizens advice bureaux—were they paid—has been estimated at £106 million.
I cannot match the hands-on experience of the CAB of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, but when I was a young solicitor in north-east Wales, I would meet, day by day, people with a problem or a multitude of problems. The individual client would come into the office with a black cloud of worry around his or her head; he or she had no idea of what to do, where to go, or how to disperse that cloud. My very first task was to listen; then to put a shape upon that cloud to reduce it into concrete issues; to apply the law to those issues; and, finally, to advise in a way that the client could understand.
I recall later at the Bar taking one case involving a special hardship allowance and another involving war pensions to the Divisional Court to obtain a writs of certiorari, as judicial review was then called. It was all pro bono work. No fees were charged and it was not on legal aid, but it was excellent experience to appear against the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, then the “Treasury Devil”. Modesty forbids me to say who won in those cases. No one could support a wife and family on pro bono work and it could be only an occasional adjunct to a personal injury and criminal practice.
For many years, lawyers in private practice have, to a very large extent, left welfare law in the areas of housing, debt and benefits to the CAB and to law centres and other voluntary agencies. The advice that is offered by the CAB is in two broad categories: generalist and specialist. Generalist advice does not need legal training, and deals with the provision of basic information, signposting, assistance with form-filling and the like. Of course, training is given by the CAB to its generalist advisers accordingly. But the specialist advisers, the paid staff, provide legal help and are mostly legally qualified. Because they do, the bureau where they are employed holds legal aid contracts from the Legal Services Commission, which provides an income of £28.4 million annually.
Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill going through the House, the Ministry of Justice projects a reduction of legal help for welfare benefits advice of 100 per cent, debt advice of 74 per cent, housing advice of 40 per cent and employment advice of 78 per cent. Will that result in savings of government expenditure overall? I very much doubt it. Removing legal aid contracts from the citizens advice bureaux will leave such a large hole in their finances that they can survive only as generalist advisers relying on voluntary assistance. The specialists will be declared redundant, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, pointed out, at considerable cost and no doubt they will use their legal expertise in more profitable employment. Generalists will be forced to say to their clients, “You need specialist advice on that particular issue. It needs a lawyer to look at it”. But where will that advice be found? It will certainly not be at high street solicitors firms, nor in the law centres, which will be even more severely hit by this Bill.
The Ministry of Justice’s own research demonstrates that problems in these areas do not arise singly but in clusters, including the family cluster. I quote from the Wave 1 report, which states that,
“family problems (comprised of domestic violence, divorce and relationship breakdown problems) cluster together strongly … 39% of those who reported suffering from domestic violence in the 2010 survey also reported problems ancillary to relationship breakdown, and 9% reported a divorce. Likewise, 22% of those who reported problems ancillary to relationship breakdown also reported a divorce, and 19% suffer from domestic violence”.
All these things are interrelated and it is even more obvious when you come to the economic clusters. The report states:
“The 2010 survey also re-confirmed the existence of a second cluster incorporating problems linking to economic activity: consumer, money, debt, employment, welfare benefits, personal injury and neighbours problems”.
“23% of those who reported having employment problems also had consumer problems, 16% had money problems, 16% had debt problems, and 19% had problems with neighbours”.
It is all linked together.
The findings of that report relating to the respondents’ knowledge of their rights is also compelling. Only 22.6 per cent felt that they knew their legal rights when the problem started; 18.2 per cent said that they mostly understood; 20.3 per cent partly understood; and 35 per cent did not understand their rights at all. Those are statistics, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for bringing an illustration of reality from his own area to those statistics.
What will be the result of the departure of specialists from the CAB? First, advice to the aggrieved client that he has no case will no longer be given, which means that the cases taken forward will be more numerous but less meritorious. Secondly, the informal settling of cases will disappear—that is, the telephone call between the citizens advice bureau adviser and the government agency to sort out mistakes and so on. Thirdly, the applicant’s case, if it goes to a tribunal, will not be in a presentable form. If the case is well-ordered and the necessary evidence has been gathered together, the tribunal can deal with an appellant in person. But if he turns up with that black cloud around him, it will be for the tribunal to spend hours sorting out that problem and not being able to come to the issue straight away in the way that it should happen.
With the cuts being proposed, the CAB will become the most vital of all the agencies that prevent social exclusion. So the question for the Minister is this: where is the funding for the specialist advisers of the CAB going to come from when those legal aid contracts disappear? I cannot believe it is the policy of the Government to make it so much more difficult for applicants to present their case that they give up, as the Wave 1 demonstrates so many of them do without help. That will be nothing to do with saving money and reducing the deficit; it will simply be a disgrace.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord for securing this debate today. The future of the CAB is a hugely important matter, and I want to begin by paying tribute to the enormous contribution the CAB makes to the well-being of our society. It provides a lifeline for over 2 million people a year, but the position is becoming desperate. As we have heard, some CABs have had more than 50 per cent of their funding withdrawn. They are cutting their opening hours, cutting services and making staff redundant. Some are facing closure and shutting down altogether. To make matters worse, the coming changes in the legal aid system mean that social welfare and housing cases will no longer be eligible for legal aid, so the funding crisis for the CAB is bound to get worse and worse. And all of that is happening as the number of people seeking help with debts, benefits and homelessness has doubled in some parts of the country.
There is a triple whammy going on: local authority cuts, the end of the Financial Inclusion Fund, and the cuts to legal aid. Inevitably, it is the poorest in our society who will suffer the most. People are already struggling with the impact of job losses—that is especially true in my part of the world, the north-east—reductions in public services, rising costs of living and increasing levels of debt. The CAB network has always prided itself on being there for the people who need its services the most, but it will no longer be able to be the lifeline that so many need, and more people will have nowhere to turn when they desperately need help with their own serious problems. The irony of it is, if irony is the word, that as a volunteer-based service, the CAB provides excellent value for money and—I argue as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, did—saves public money in the long run. It is almost as if we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. When CABs are forced to reduce their services, they lose highly skilled and dedicated volunteers and staff. That is a tragic waste and surely a false economy.
My personal experience comes from the city of Newcastle and the county of Northumberland, and it is on the latter that I want to focus the rest of my remarks. Those noble Lords who know Northumberland will know that it is a wonderfully wild, beautiful and very sparsely populated place. There are few, if any, sources of free advice, and for many people the local CAB is not just the first port of call, it is the only place where they can get free, high-quality advice. In rural counties like Northumberland, specialist advice services are few and far between and, as budgets reduce, specialist advisers are finding it harder to travel out to rural outreach centres, some of which have been successfully placed in churches and local village community halls.
Inevitably perhaps, and increasingly, new technology is being considered in order to help improve access to advice. But the trouble is that while the provision of advice by e-mail or through online websites is sometimes a realistic solution, in many parts of Northumberland people cannot even get a mobile phone signal let alone access the internet, and some of the problems people are facing are far more complex than can be dealt with in a quick e-mail. The manager of the citizens advice bureau in Alnwick said this to me:
“The trouble is that assumptions are often made that deprivation does not exist in rural areas, but our experience says otherwise. Unemployment, low pay, part-time seasonal work, limited access to childcare, poor transport links, an ageing population and the low take-up of benefits are just some of the factors which contribute to rural deprivation here. But because the numbers affected are small and scattered, or because deprivation is hidden, it is harder for rural CABs to evidence the need for services to tackle these issues”.
What is true of Northumberland is equally true of many of the more deeply rural parts of our country.
In our present financial climate, it is vital that people continue to have access to debt and welfare advice. I look forward to hearing from the Minister not only how much the work of the CAB is valued by our Government but, much more importantly, how the present insecurity and uncertainty, which are so debilitating for everybody connected with the CAB, can be ended by government action and thereby how the future of the vital CAB services in our country can be secured.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, on initiating this debate, which is very timely. I declare an interest in that my daughter is a representative councillor on the management committee of her area CAB. It is not a financial interest. I also quote a statement by Ed Davey, the Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs:
“The Citizens Advice service is a respected brand served by a network of volunteers whom people really trust. In many ways, they are one of the best examples of the Big Society in action”.
That surely indicates that the CAB means a lot to our Government.
I spoke earlier today to a friend who works on a voluntary basis as a solicitor—I was going to say “a young solicitor”, but she has been around longer than I realise, as we are all growing older. She devotes many hours a week to employment issues, which is her field. She said that a difficulty that comes up all the time is a lack of communication and that people often say to her, “You are the first person who has ever actually listened to what I have got to say”. She said that she has had cases where a Filipino woman would be working for a Nigerian man and there was really no issue in it at all; it was simply that they did not understand one another. Each had broken English, but the English had broken in different ways. Therefore, there was no common language between them. That reminds me of how important it is that the Government make knowledge of English language an important feature of life in this country, because it is terribly hard otherwise, unless you are an old lady or an old gentleman whose family looks after everything for you, to participate fully in life. To do that, you really have to have a working knowledge of English as it is spoken today. English is a living language and constantly changing; therefore it is very important that people know what it is about.
The level of professional help and courtesy in the CAB is very high. The Kensington and Chelsea Citizens Advice Bureau service was one of the first branches to open, in September 1939 at the outbreak of war. More than 97 per cent of people have heard of the CAB and 40 per cent have used it at some stage. The total can be counted in millions. At every level, the work represents cost savings to other service providers. That point is highly relevant. In our previous debate on the health service, it was pointed out how so many of the specialist nurses and services save the National Health Service money. I believe that the CAB, too, saves rather than costs money. We tend to look at these things in a slightly short-sighted way.
The two branches of the bureau in Kensington and Chelsea benefit from more than 330 hours a week of volunteer input. It is not easy to get people to give up time now. Even my friend who volunteers a large part of her week said that, as times get harder, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to give up professional time to be there, but we are lucky that she is still doing it.
The London School of Economics found for the Department of Health that face-to-face debt advice was a cost-effective intervention, not only in preventing anxiety and depression but with a return of £3.55 for every £1 invested. The statistics show that the greatest number of people presenting to the CAB now are coming with cases about welfare or debt. That reflects the worrying financial times that we are all facing. When we hear on the radio about people falling into the hands of loan sharks, that is cause for worry. Citizens Advice must prevent many of those disasters from happening by giving people better advice.
Certainly, unemployment is growing. My informant told me that the number of people coming for unemployment advice is rising to new levels. People who did not need help before need help now. It is widespread. Some 76 per cent of people trust Citizens Advice to provide free advice that is truly independent and impartial.
So many things could be said in favour of Citizens Advice, but I have one final point about prevention. The CAB solves many cases, but there is no estimate of the thousands of cases in which Citizens Advice has prevented the need for legal or other action. That is an uncosted value that should be taken into account. I do hope that the Government will take this message on board.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Boateng on securing this important debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said, the debate is extremely timely for a number of reasons. We have had some excellent speeches which I know the Minister will have listened to with care.
For my own part, I cannot help feeling a little sorry for the Minister tonight. She has to answer this debate although her department has at least tried in some ways to assist the CAB at this difficult time, whereas the Ministry of Justice has, frankly, done the exact opposite. In their legal aid Bill proposals, the Government are planning, as we have heard, to legislate to stop CABs performing a crucial part of their work, namely to give early, specialist legal advice to those who need it. However, it is the Minister who will have to answer this debate on behalf of the Government.
The likely effects of the MoJ proposals are, first and most importantly, that people will not get the advice that they need and deserve. Secondly, some CABs will actually have to close down and others will be put under severe pressure. Thirdly, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, up to 500 specialist staff who are currently employed will either have to find other jobs or be made redundant, with costs attached. What a crazy, nonsensical policy it must be if those are the likely effects of that part of the Bill coming into effect.
Some 20 years ago, it was in my honour to be chairman for a three-year period of a small local CAB, Lutterworth and District. Both then and right through the intervening years, one fact has remained constant—CABs are hugely popular. They are, as we have heard, both trusted and respected, and they are clearly needed by the British people. Any organisation that can give help in one year to more than 2 million people with more than 7 million problems, as was the case in 2010-11, is bound to be popular and respected. However, it is much more than that. It is a feeling that part of what makes it great to be British and us proud of our way of life is that we live in a society where there are efficient and successful institutions that provide help to people in dealing with the law of everyday life—with the law-thick world that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, talked about, dealing with the bureaucracy, delays and legal wrongs that exist in a complex modern society. There are other fine organisations too—law centres, advice centres, many charities, and voluntary and religious organisations as well—but in my view, none has a greater resonance with the British people than the CAB movement.
We all agree that our economic situation is such that savings have to be made. Legal aid must take its share too. However, to say that does not excuse us from looking at where those cuts or savings have to be made. We live at a time—as we have heard, not least from the right reverend Prelate—of falling living standards and the risk of more unemployment; a time, in short, when ordinary people are more greatly in debt and there is greater evidence of renting rather than home owning. Ordinary people more than ever need the help that CABs, along with other organisations, can deliver. People need early legal advice and access to justice more than ever. However, this is precisely the time when the Government have chosen to cut 10 per cent off the very low fees paid for the social welfare law cases which CABs do. They intend to make much greater cuts in the Bill going through this House at the moment. The proposals will mean that the legal aid income of CABs will be reduced from £28.4 million this year to something like £5.4 million once the proposals are in effect. That is a massive difference in the amount of money going to CABs and the number of cases that CABs can take on.
At the moment, 500 CAB special advisers deal each year with over 52,500 welfare benefit cases or problems, over 63,000 debt problems, nearly 16,000 housing problems and up to 3.3 million employment problems. With these massive cuts, they will hardly be able to touch anywhere near those figures. Even if all this was justified and had to be done—we argue that it is certainly immoral and an attack on access to justice—it would still be an absurd policy for the very reason that noble Lords have already stated: it is bound to cost much more than the savings which the MoJ might make. People who cannot get early help will of course find that, in some cases, their problems get worse. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said that a moment ago. The state will have to come in at some stage—there will be re-housing, extra benefits and the state will have to pick up the pieces. We will all have to pick up the pieces. While the MoJ may save a few million quid, the rest of us will be spending much more.
It is good that there is a review, which my noble friend mentioned. However, I have to say that early reports of it are not encouraging and I ask the Minister if she will tell us a bit about it. As I understand it, the review is the modern equivalent of what used to be described as two men and a dog—in this case, two civil servants doing the review on their own. It has to finish by the end of January, which seems remarkably quick. I am delighted that they have been to Coventry Law Centre, which works very closely with the CAB in that great city. But is this a serious review that is really going to look at the future of this crucial part of our justice system?
The CABs would ask us to say that their clients, who are infinitely more important than anybody else, will be the most important people to suffer. But the Citizens Advice Bureaux themselves will suffer; they will have to make people redundant, including a lot of special advisers who will have to make up the 15 per cent shortfall that taking away legal aid from them will mean and who will no longer be viable.
If CABs fail or become half as useful as they are at present, we as a country fail too. What sort of country do you become if the poor and vulnerable—in fact, if any citizen—cannot get help for their legal problems? We are at great risk of allowing that to happen, as it were, quietly, so before we know where we are that is the kind of country we are.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for initiating this debate, and as others have said I commend those who have spoken and look forward to those who have still to speak. The noble Lord rightly said that we must have a joined-up review. I think that that is crucial. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, said: “If CABs didn’t exist, government would have to invent them”. That is a sentence that my noble friend of 20 years has taken straight out of my script.
My noble friend Lord Thomas stated a key statistic—that 35 per cent of those going to CABs are totally unaware and lacking in understanding of the legal problems surrounding them. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle talked, rightly, of rural poverty. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, said that 98 per cent of the population have heard of CABs. Is there another institution in our entire society of which that is true?
The National Trust.
Yes. Then the noble Lord, Lord Bach, himself came out with that striking statistic that civil legal aid will drop for the CABs from £28 million to £5 million if the cuts go ahead as planned.
I state my own interest in CABs, in that I was for two decades solicitor to what was the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and my firm still does a lot of work for it. I also acknowledge instantly to my noble friend the Minister that this must be a very difficult debate to respond to, because we are all on the one side and passionately so and will not be put off, and she has to answer this.
Of course, as a coalition Government we have had to do very unpopular things and all parts of public expenditure have been hit. The general message tonight is clear—that this is a false economy that we are engaged upon. It is manifestly clear to anybody who has had anything to do with the CAB movement that what it does is—as one noble Lord said—to prevent much greater problems downstream. We have had various statistics quoted as to how much is saved by £1 that is spent via the CAB. I heard a figure of £9 being saved downstream for every £1 saved upstream in equipping CAB advisers to help people with debt. What greater problem is going to confront us in the next two or three years than debt? None, I suggest. How parlous are the circumstances of people trammelled in debt? As the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said, they have loan sharks swimming all around them. I have to be honest that it is a mystery, even with the intense difficulties of running a budget in these times, as to why we are cutting the bone—this is not the flesh, it is the bone of citizens advice.
CABs are in a way a national legal service. They are the nearest thing that we have to the NHS. It is interesting to remember that the first legal aid Act in 1949 had a provision in it allowing for the establishment across the countries of advice centres. The reason why that was not implemented was that the CAB movement took wing after the Second World War and it was instantly clear that they would provide all over the country the sort of citizen help that could have been provided at vastly more expense, with vastly more bureaucracy by the state, under the 1949 Act.
I feel compelled to say that there is a sort of cynicism, wholly unintentional but none the less real, about this Parliament which legislates as if there is no tomorrow. I looked up a statistic before I came here—in 2007 and 2008, we legislated 28,773 pages of new statute law. That is an average for each year of 14,386 pages, and that is without the circulars and all the rest that comes in the wake. That affects citizens of all sorts and all conditions, and one of the interesting phenomena of the development of the CAB movement has been that it is no longer just for the poor and deeply disadvantaged. More and more of our fellow citizens have to resort to the CABs to get advice on increasingly complicated legal jungles—quite as complex, I may say, as the tax system.
The big society point that has been made by so many noble Lords needs emphasising. If the Government are serious about the big society, and they are, then there is no more powerful manifestation of it than the typical CAB. It is not just about the nearly 400 full-time CABs; there are 3,300 part-time CABs operating from doctors’ surgeries, libraries and town halls—you name it. Those 3,300 are all manned by volunteers who come from a complete slice of the local population. They are the most catholic voluntary organisation in every town in this land of ours. They offer an availability to people who would otherwise be afraid, for example, of going to a solicitor to get advice. The reason is that they do not have the fear of fees there, which I am afraid is all too present with solicitors, and there is no sort of cultural problem. People do not feel at a disadvantage crossing the threshold of a CAB because they know from friends and acquaintances that they will be treated in a friendly and informal way. I am not for a minute saying that they would not be treated the same in a solicitor’s office, but we are talking about perception.
We cannot exaggerate the importance of this trust. We have had a Localism Bill, for goodness’ sake, and this is the apogee of practical localism. Given the empathy between CABs and their local populations, they get to parts that no one else reaches. I maintain that we really cannot make some of the cuts now intended, because I believe that the reverberations of those cuts will be profound. We will face, and are already facing, social pressures and strains in the wake of the economic crisis, which I fear is going to get much worse. It is precisely at this time that we need to shore up those institutions which sustain, support and give solidarity among our fellow citizens, right across the board.
I appreciate that the Minister is under strict limits as to what she can say in winding up, let alone what she can concede. However, perhaps she can at least take back to the Government the fact that this small number of Peers, late on a Thursday, were unanimous in their belief—I am sure that I can speak for those to come—that the CAB movement is a pearl beyond price, especially at this time, and that to damage it is to act in a self-damaging and counterproductive way.
I will end with a quote from that great old 17th-century philosopher, Hobbes, because down the ages, as we all know, ring plangent pleas from the populace to help them out of the thickets of the law, from Utopia through the Levellers and down to our time, with Mr Justice Darling and his wonderful remark about the law being available like the Ritz. Hobbes said:
“The safety of the people requireth … that justice be equally administered to all degrees of people; that is, that … poor and obscure persons, may be righted of the injuries done them”.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for initiating this debate. As a councillor for many years I have held many hundreds of surgeries for local residents. People have come to discuss problems related to housing, often around rent levels or the conditions of their homes. Over the years I have dealt with countless issues around benefits, debt, tax, employment law and disability. Competent though I have been, like most councillors, at the broad generality of such inquiries, I am only too well aware of the number of times that I have said, “I think you ought to go and see the CAB”. I would give them the address and advise them to phone ahead to book an appointment and, on occasion, to be certain that the case was being properly made, I would accompany them to that meeting. Over the years I also managed to secure CAB advice sessions in local community centres, churches and council offices, making them accessible to more people because I knew that there was unmet local demand. Almost everyone has heard of the CAB but not everyone has known how to access it, which is why signposting by council, libraries, GP surgeries and voluntary agencies has been so important.
There seems to be a unity of view in your Lordships’ House, and I would like to suggest a way in which the Government might approach the provision of free legal and other advice. This would be by developing a policy towards CABs, law centres and other voluntary organisations such as Shelter from the perspective of the individual rather than just the provider. My point is that, given the funding cuts announced and anticipated, I do not know how vulnerable individuals are going to get the help they need, when they need it and where they need it. lf law centres close and income from legal aid work is substantially reduced to organisations currently in receipt of it, forcing further closures of CAB centres and other centres in the voluntary sector, what will happen to the individuals who lack the money and resources to do things for themselves? How does that drive our equalities agenda? What will MPs and councillors be able to say at their surgeries? To whom will they be able to refer those vulnerable people? Not everything will go, of course, but the agencies involved, all of them part of the big society, work together now with case referrals to make the best use of expertise so that not all agencies need to offer the same services.
I hope that a way forward can be found that is built up from the needs of vulnerable people and then mapped across a geographical locality to ensure that coverage is maintained, rather than just implementing standard budget cuts across the board and hoping that local authorities, themselves facing large cuts, will sort things out at a local level. They can help, but the situation requires the Government to think clearly about how to provide a reasonable and fair level of support across all parts of the country.
The heart of the issue is equal access to legal advice. Those who cannot afford to purchase it need to be protected by Governments, for that is their role. Governments are there to promote social justice and social inclusion. The citizen advice bureaux lie at the heart of equal access. I hope that Ministers will take note of this, act upon it and use the opportunity of the cross-government review of government funding advice to address the problem of top-down models of funding not working on the ground as well as they should.
My Lords, I apologise as I am afraid that, given the crowded schedule of activities in your Lordships' House, I had not realised that the deadline for putting down my name to speak in today’s debate was last night.
I want to say a few words in this important debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, because, like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I have been involved with, and am a huge admirer of, CABs—in my case probably for at least 40 years. I particularly admire the incredible range of expert help that they provide for our citizens throughout the UK, especially for the most disadvantaged sections of the community.
For the past two months, many of your Lordships have been locked away upstairs, struggling with the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. Given the many changes introduced by that Bill which will affect the poorest and most disabled members of the community, expert help of the kind that CABs provide so brilliantly will be needed even more than it is now in making the best possible case for their needy clients. Like other noble Lords, I urge the Government to develop plans which will ensure that CABs’ expertise remains available as it is so demonstrably cost effective.
I, too, realise that funds to continue the CABs’ excellent work do not all come from government. There will be cuts in local authority funding and in funding from other supporters of their work as a result of the disastrous economic situation that we all face. However, in view particularly of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and its proposals to end legal aid funding for most civil law procedures, the need for CABs’ relatively inexpensive, but expert and certainly value-for-money, help to be available to the poorest and most needy in our communities will be even more important than it is now. If we fail to do this, the long-term results are, alas, all too predictable, with long-term costs to government resources likely to grow at an alarming rate. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies, she will be able to reassure your Lordships that the Government put a high priority on ensuring that the amazingly productive CABs continue to be available for all those who need to draw on them.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Boateng for securing this debate at a very appropriate time given all the other relevant legislation that is going through the House. He gave us a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the impact of the Government’s proposals and rightly suggested that they ought to think again.
Given the unanimous view of noble Lords on this issue, I was tempted to make the shortest contribution ever and say, “Ditto”. However, I thought that that might be misunderstood and that I should provide an analysis as I am speaking on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench.
The noble Lord, Lord Newton, reminded us that the CABs existed before the term “big society” had been invented and that if they did not exist, they would have had to be invented. I have only one slight caveat as regards his contribution when he said that the impact of any reduction in this service would be felt by the relatively poor and vulnerable. However, I think we should delete “relatively” as I think that such a measure will have an impact on the poor and vulnerable, and on people with disabilities even more so.
It is. I spoke in that way to create a certain effect—nothing more than that. I do not need to quote the Cambridge CAB briefing because the noble Lord has already done that. There is another quote that I shall come to later.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, rightly reminded us of people’s ability to make use of the law as regards social justice. He is absolutely right. Sixty-four per cent of CAB staff are volunteers and the key issue expressed by nearly every speaker, and by the CAB itself, is the real concern about the impact if the funding for training is not around. Some of the bureaux are saying that there is already an impact and that they are losing staff and volunteers. That precious reservoir of experience built up over the years is a loss that will be hard to replace.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle gave a graphic description of the impact on rural areas. That is an issue to which we do not pay enough attention. He was also right to draw to our attention the fact that while many people are quite comfortable with making a query by using a PC and the internet, or even perhaps a smart phone, they do not suit everyone—certainly not the most vulnerable. We cannot take for granted access to those forms of communication.
My noble friend Lord Bach rightly, as did a number of noble Lords, talked about the Ministry of Justice proposals, as a result of which some CABs, given the loss of funding, may even close. He pointed out that they were trusted and respected, and he also raised the issue of access to justice and the startling cut from £28 million to £5 million. The message we want to convey to the Minister is that these are false savings. That is the unfortunate thing about this matter. Another statistic is that some 65,000 cases taken up by CABs were funded by legal aid. There is likely to be a 75 per cent cut in the number of those cases.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that he was starting to feel sorry for the Minister. I reflected on that and thought: we are coming up to Christmas, and even Scrooge managed to see the light and repent. I do not address that to the Minister in particular, but the ghost of Christmas to come might be haunting her, or at least the Government collectively. There is still time. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, rightly reminded us of the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill.
I return to the statements made by the chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy. She said:
“Everyone who supports Citizens Advice—and we are pleased this includes David Cameron—should be deeply concerned by the news”,
of a 7 per cent drop in the total number of people that CABs were able to help. She continued:
“It’s now clear that cuts are beginning to disrupt our front line services across the country, just as people struggle to cope with the impact of job losses, reductions in public services and a massive jump in the cost of living. We want to be there for all who need us, but when bureaux have their funding slashed, there’s simply no alternative to cutting back the help we offer”.
Ms Guy warned that there will be much worse to come if planned changes to legal aid go ahead and funding for face-to-face specialist debt advice ends. She added:
“Our clients tell us that CAB advice is a lifeline when they face debt, benefits housing and employment worries. Unless sustainable funding is put in place for the future”—
I stress “sustainable”; there has been some additional funding, but it is temporary—
“more and more people will have nowhere to turn”.
She again stresses:
“Every £1 of legal aid spent on housing, debt, employment and benefits advice can save up to £8.80 in costs to the taxpayer further down the line, by nipping problems in the bud before they escalate out of control”.
“When bureaux are forced to reduce services, they also lose highly skilled, dedicated volunteers or staff—a tragic waste and a false economy when you take into account the resources invested in creating a highly trained volunteer workforce able to provide a professional service to the public”.
She cites a couple of examples. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, has already mentioned the Cambridge CAB. Mansfield CAB, along with other bureaux in Nottinghamshire, has had a 60 per cent cut in funding from Nottinghamshire county council, rising to 74 per cent in 2012-13, leading to difficult decisions about how to make those savings with the least impact on the service to clients. The bureau estimates that at least 2,000 fewer local people will be able to get the in-depth advice they need as a result of the cuts to its funding. It has also had to make redundant the post-holder whose function was—this is a cruel irony—to recruit, train and support volunteers, meaning that it is currently having to turn away people who want to train as volunteer advisers. That seems not only a terrible false economy but something that flies in the face of reason and the big society concept.
I am conscious of the time. I trust that the Minister will respond to the cogent and vital points that have been made, and I look forward to her reply.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this debate. As former chair of the National Consumer Council, where we did a lot of work for consumers, including disadvantaged consumers, chairman of the National Federation of Consumer Groups, which is the grass-roots organisation, and former president of the trading standards administration, the plight of consumers is very close to my heart. The need for more and more advice in these complex and worrying times has been evidenced here tonight.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, almost said just ditto, and so could I. He has to speak for the Opposition, and I must respond for my coalition Government and be practical and report to the House what I can. The big society is about putting more power into people's hands—a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities. Voluntary, community and social enterprises are, we believe, central to that vision, because they act as a mechanism for people to come together to act on a given cause and provide a voice to individuals or groups who might not otherwise be heard. Sometimes those transitions are more difficult than we think they will be.
In response to my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I say that our vision is for the sector to play an even more influential role in shaping a stronger sense of society and improving people's lives to give them a huge range of new opportunities to shape and provide innovative bottom-up services where expensive state provision has failed. We have already pledged £470 million over the current spending period to help the sector build capacity, including a £107 million transition fund, which has been referred to tonight, to support voluntary organisations that deliver public services.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, and my noble friend Lord Newton on funding for CABs, I say that although the transition fund has ended, the Government are acutely aware that the voluntary sector still faces challenges to its funding streams at both the national and local level, especially those organisations involved in the provision of free advice services.
On 21 November, the Government announced that we had set aside £20 million to support the sector in the short term, as well as that we would be conducting a review to consider the longer-term environment of both funding and demand and how the Government can play a role in that. The review, which has already begun, will conclude early next year. That is all I can say about the review at this time.
To date more than 1,000 organisations have benefited from the funding we have provided, including 45 citizens advice bureaux.
To the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, in response to the question on legal aid and the transition fund, I say that the Government recognise the important role that not-for-profit organisations such as citizens advice bureaux do in delivering advice services at the local level. We are working with the sector, and across government, to ensure that the implementation of government reforms helps to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of advice services available to the public. The Government will be providing, as I said, additional funding of up to £20 million in this financial year to help achieve that.
Many people, including my noble friend Lord Newton—and in fact every speaker, I think—would say that the Citizens Advice service is already the big society in action: a respected brand, independent of Government, served by a network of volunteers, which people really trust. That is why my department has been consulting on ways in which Citizens Advice might play an even stronger role in providing consumer advocacy.
We are thinking of bringing together the powers and duties currently wielded by Consumer Focus, with its long-standing expertise and experience of helping people on the front line, to make an even bigger difference for consumers. The review, as we have said, concludes early next year, and especially after tonight I am mindful of the urgency and will reflect that back.
As a Government we are committed to ensuring that people have continued access to good-quality, free and independent advice in local communities, and that is why, as I have said before, on 21 November we announced the funding to the advice service fund. This will support the not-for-profit advice service providers to deliver essential services. This fund will focus on debt, welfare benefits, housing, and employment in the short term. A review to look at funding and the demand for advice services—
I will try to answer the questions as I go along, because, first, that means noble Lords do not have to wait for me to write the answer, and secondly I can try to fit them into what I am saying so that it has some kind of flow. But more than likely I will not get it right and will wish I had not started this way. I will try to continue. The noble Lord will get his advice.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke about the policy to protect the vulnerable. The advice sector review is seeking the input of a wide range of advice sector stakeholders, including national and local advice organisations, representative bodies, funders and other organisations that have an influential role in this sector. Continual provision of services to vulnerable consumers will be at the centre of this review, and I hope that this reassures the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that we are looking at it.
I am pleased that my department continues to support the national umbrella bodies that support the local bureaux, but the same cannot be said of local authorities. In a number of areas, the delivery of services by local bureaux has been seriously affected by local authority spending cuts, despite clear guidance from central government that voluntary organisations should not be seen as a soft target by them.
The current financial climate is such that all avenues must be explored in finding efficiencies and unlocking savings, and because of their experience, creativity and closeness to communities, voluntary groups can frequently deliver them.
Given the failure of many local authorities to take the advice and guidance from government, I wonder if the Minister would reflect, and perhaps come back to us, on the desirability of her department encouraging consideration within government of whether to impose a duty on local authorities to make provision for advice in their areas. Surely experience shows us that when local authorities do not take guidance from central government there is a requirement at least to consider imposing a statutory duty on them to do so.
As a result of the debate that the noble Lord called, I can take back what he suggested. I cannot respond at the moment, but a debate such as this allows things like that to be said, on which I will go back and reflect—as I will on everything that was said, including the question of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, to which the answer is, “We will write to Lord Phillips”. So I cannot give him the answer now, for which I apologise.
The current financial climate is such that all avenues must be explored to find efficiencies and unlock savings. Because of their creativity and experience close to communities, voluntary groups can frequently do this. Local authorities should look to strengthen, not weaken, their ties with the voluntary sector. I am pleased that councils such as Reading, Hackney, Thurrock and Wolverhampton have recognised this. Certainly I will take back the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, has just made.
I felt that this debate was almost a forerunner for the Committee stage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I also felt that I could not tell noble Lords very much more than what we are doing at the moment, which is almost all that I have done. It simply remains for me to recognise the excellent work carried out by Citizens Advice nationwide. In future, our goal is for Citizens Advice to be at the heart of providing consumer information, advice, education and advocacy. In the mean time, I am glad that my department's financial support for the central operations of the Citizens Advice network helps bureaux to go on being the mainstays of community life.
As I said, I will take away the speeches that emphasised the urgency of need, and in particular the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, who spoke so movingly of the need in rural areas. It is easy to forget when we spend so much time in central London that the area I come from—Cornwall—and the area he reflected on are large areas with small populations where it is very difficult to get advice.
I will take back the reflections of my noble friend Lady Gardner on the fact that language is sometimes a barrier, not an access, and that we must be careful to make sure that everything does not happen online. I hope that the results of the review that I reflected on will enable the Government better to reflect what we have heard tonight.
House adjourned at 5.48 pm.