Who to turn to now?

The closure of three advice services has made life harder for staff and service users, writes Gary Vaux

Front-line staff are under constant pressure and need access to expert back-up. It is therefore a disappointment to hear of three decisions that don’t bode well for access to advice, particularly for people looking for high-quality specialist training.

First, the Disability Alliance training unit has closed so no further training courses are being provided. The rest of the Disability Alliance’s services, such as the excellent annual Disability Rights Handbook will be continuing, although its Rights Advice Line closed last year as well.

Second, the Maternity Alliance closed last December. It provided excellent advice, fact-sheets and training on employment and benefit rights in particular. Trustees are in the process of handing over the Alliance’s activities to other organisations. For the present, advice and information on employment-related issues can be obtained from Working Families on office@workingfamilies.org.uk, the help-line on 0800 013 0313 or www.workingfamilies.org.uk.

Last, the Legal Services Commission (LSC) has announced the termination of the Specialist Support Project contracts, with services to be withdrawn from 19 July 2006 on financial grounds. The contracts had originally been given to 19 organisations across the UK to provide specialist support to front-line staff in areas such as welfare benefits, debt, immigration, housing and employment. The LSC says it is to prioritise “front-line” services, such as CLS Direct (see below) instead.

The contracted organisations who supplied this support included such recognised experts as Child Poverty Action Group (welfare benefits), Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (immigration), Terrence Higgins Trust (HIV/Aids), Shelter (housing), Mind (mental health) and Citizens Advice (debt and employment); so it is a major loss that their specific support work for LSC quality marked or contracted organisations is being cut.

As the LSC’s own evaluation noted back in 2004: “Specialist Support does improve access to legal services for clients by giving them access to higher levels of expert advice than is available on a local basis…The development of a range of services that can support less experienced caseworkers with the most complex or cutting edge areas of law is an integral part of ensuring the services available in the CLS are of optimum quality.”

Although the contracts won’t be terminated until July 2006, training courses will not be organised or funded beyond the end of March 2006.

The Community Legal Service Direct help-lines are available by calling 0845 345 4345 and callers will get free initial advice about benefits and tax credits, debt, education, housing or employment. People eligible for legal aid can get further help by telephone and post, or be referred for face-to-face advice for problems that cannot be solved over the phone.

However, the LSC’s decision reflects a switch from detailed support to much more broader-based telephone advice services. And the loss of training from the Disability Alliance and Maternity Alliance will only compound the problem for under-resourced front-line staff.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered  please write to him c/o Community Care

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