Developing a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales
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Constitution of Advice

In light of the Scotland referendum and the big related debates about Constitutional change and structures of Government, powers and decision-making (for Scotland, Wales and England), it is worth thinking about the potential impact of this weeks’ events on the advice landscape.

Scotland
Starting with Scotland first – Scotland has always had its own distinct legal system, courts and professions (eg Sheriff Courts etc), and since 1999 all governmental decisions concerning justice and legal aid spending have been devolved to the Scottish Government. Given this, the Low Commission’s work deliberately limited itself to the situation in England and Wales only (notwithstanding Lord Low’s Scottish background.) The funding system for legal aid works through a mix of applications to the Legal Aid Board by Solicitors, and project funded non-profit advice services.

However, the interesting thing is that whilst Scotland has its own legal aid system with an annual spend of around £160 million, it has of course faced its own massive funding pressures given the Scottish Government dependence on financial transfers from Whitehall – pressures of similar magnitude that led to the passage of LASPO south of the Border. So the Scottish Government embarked on its own legal aid reform programme, including extensive legislation. However, this reform programme has not involved imposing a single restriction of the existing scope of civil legal aid coverage – the cuts have mostly been achieved through introducing extremely strict means tests, contributions and cost recover procedures in criminal legal aid.

Non-legislative reforms in Scotland have also seen investment in online resources and legal capability through the Scottish Government’s Making Justice Work Programme and its approach to enhancing the legal capability of those experiencing everyday civil law problems. See
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Justice/legal/mjw

That’s not to say that the Scottish Government’s reforms have not been controversial – they have and charging those on low incomes in crime cases has triggered outcries amongst civil liberties campaigners. But is does illustrate that there are different ways of achieving savings, and if the will is there support for social welfare advice services can be protected.

Wales

Since the establishment of the Welsh Govewrnment it has always taken a close interest in advice services, especially the voluntary sector, and new development in Wales are coming about in which the Low Commission have played a key role.

The provision of information, advice and guidance services in Wales was already a key objective in the Welsh Government’s Tackling Poverty Action Plan, 2012-2016 and the Strategic Equality Plan, 2012-2016. In May 2013, the Welsh Government published its Advice Services Review report (http://wales.gov.uk/topics/people-and-communities/research/community/advice-services-review-final-research-report/?lang=en)
This review looked, in particular, at the Not-for-Profit advice sector and at the information, advice and guidance services provided by the public and private sectors. It brought forward a number of recommendations which can broadly be grouped into 3 themes:
(i) Funding, commissioning and delivering advice services;
(ii) Developing Advice Networks; and
(iii) Developing national standards for information and advice.

The Welsh Government’s main priorities in responding to the review are around these three themes and it has worked closely with the Independent Advice Providers Forum in Wales and other key stakeholders to identify ways in which these recommendations can be taken forward. New appointments are now being made aimed at supporting the implementation of the first recommendation of the Review which is that “Welsh Government should establish a resourced National Advice Network to ensure strategic coordination of advice services, increase shared learning and make best use of available resources”. It is envisaged that this National Advice Network will help develop a more strategic and coordinated approach to the way advice services (particularly those relating to welfare benefits; debt and money management, housing and discrimination) are planned and delivered in Wales.

If any of this sounds familiar, look no further than the Low Commission’s final report recommendations. Low Commissioner Bob Chapman in particular has worked closely with Minister Jeff Cuthbert to develop the policy. Any new greater Welsh Government powers could also provide an opportunity to develop this initiative. Re-opening the question of the Welsh Government’s role may also open up other issues; some in the Welsh Government are pushing for an entirely separate welsh jurisdiction.

England

It also seems that the genie is now well and truly out the bottle on the question of governance in England – should some decision-making be regionalised, and should it only be English MPs voting on legislation only covering England. And if the issue of regional powers does gather momentum, it’s quite possible that this could also trigger a review of local government structures. It seems highly unlikely in the current fiscal climate that new regional structures/bodies of decision-making or powers will emerge unless local government structures, such as first second tier authorities (counties, boroughs, districts etc), are reformed to accommodate regional powers and that the current multiple tiers are rationalised.

Given local government is the largest funder for advice services this will inevitably have huge implications, although there could be opportunities also. The Low Commission has been clear that we would like to see commissioning take place at a local level but through a planned framework of local advice plans, drawing for example on joint strategic needs assessments and Health and Wellbeing Board Strategies. Some rationalisation might help the planning process – what happens for example when there appears to be overlap or tension between the commissioning of the advices services from local authority second tier level and the requirements coming through the Health and Wellbeing boards for services at the county level? But if any tier of local government goes, then there’s also the potential to loose significant funding.