A decision of Birmingham City Council to end the existing funding agreements with 13 community organisations who provide legal advice threatens to remove what is effectively a lifeline for many vulnerable people living in the poorest parts of the city. It is of even greater concern that the Council has decided there will be a six-month gap before new contracts will be available, for most of the organisations that currently hold contracts will struggle to survive during the break and may not be around to bid for a new deal.
Headline news about the decision has focussed almost exclusively on the effects on the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which will lose in the region of £0.5 million annual income, but in fact the CAB receives only around half of the total pot of money. Many of the other contracts are held by independent community organisations and the impact on these will be even more devastating.
Indeed, our own centre, Birmingham TUC Centre for the Unemployed in Sparkhill is one of those agencies affected by the decision to end funding of the contracts. Like almost every other agency we have delivered significantly above the contracted target figures throughout the last four years. An independent report commissioned by the Council concluded that the existing set-up “demonstrates excellent value for money.” In very basic terms, for an annual cost of approximately £60,000 the TUC Centre delivers more than £1 million in added income to local residents. At a time when many families are experiencing financial pressures, support such as this should be praised and promoted rather than subject to the treatment agencies have experienced.
There is no enthusiasm from our local councillors, whether they are in opposition with Labour or in the ruling group with the Lib Dems, to end the funding stream, and more importantly leave a 6-month gap when there will be no service available. One of the more bizarre rumours that is circulating about reasons for this gap (and which surely cannot be true) is that if the city were to recommission the same, or a similar, service immediately then they would be liable for the TUPE transfer costs of staff from agencies that are unsuccessful in gaining new contracts.
Services to local citizens which are now no longer funded include:
Responding to requests from both central government and local authority bodies for information
Assistance in making claims for everything from Blue Badge parking permits to Retirement Pension
Assistance in understanding and, where appropriate, challenging decisions on benefit overpayments
Arranging payment plans to enable clients to resolve short-term debt problems
Advocacy at welfare tribunals (Birmingham Tribunal Unit, the main provider of advocacy within the city, will lose over 60% of its funding)
Birmingham has a long tradition of providing legal advice services delivered by independent organisations in local communities. It makes sense. Birmingham is huge, the largest local authority in the UK, and as befits a city that expanded with the arrival of migrant workers from Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean, South Asia and more recently from both Eastern Europe and a range of troubled countries from throughout the world, it is diverse. One size certainly does not fit all in Birmingham.
Such diversity also means that Birmingham’s citizens often have different and greater needs for support to access their legal rights in areas such as welfare benefits, care needs, housing problems. To give just one example: most of the workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who came here in the 1960s to boost the labour force of factories such as Lucas and Rover and other large industrial firms within the city, long since gone, are now pensioners. They do not have the levels of literacy to access what is a complex benefits system and need help to fill in basic forms, contact the various government and council offices and to find out what their basic rights are. This is why many rely on the local independent advice centres, which provide support and help to enable them to achieve their legal rights. Without that help many will struggle even more than they do now.
This afternoon (Wednesday) the Labour MP Jack Dromey is to lead a debate at Westminster on the future of the CAB in Birmingham. Let us hope the wider issue of the fate of independent voluntary sector advice services within the city is also raised and a way is found to restore funding without leaving a gap.
One thing is for certain, without its network of independent advice centres Birmingham will be a poorer city in more ways than one.