Helping Vunerable People Resolve Their Problems

Better co-ordinated delivery of advice could help resolve disputes about debt, housing, employment and other matters earlier and more effectively, according to a report published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs today.

The report, ‘Getting Earlier, Better Advice To Vulnerable People’, sets out a programme for co-ordinating and enhancing the role of independent advice across central and local Government, and for using feedback from the process to help improve public services. It aims to develop a strategy for helping people, especially the vulnerable and socially excluded, to obtain such advice more easily.

Welcoming the report, Constitutional Affairs Minister Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP said: “This important report underlines the crucial role that independent, locally-based advice can have in improving the quality of life for individuals, and the quality of service in the public sector.

“It is a significant contribution to our wider examination of legal aid and advice services. It will be given full weight in developing effective policies to deliver these valuable services.”

The report suggests that such a strategy should address:

– the “cluster” effect of problems, and stopping one problem escalating into other, often more serious, problems;
– quicker resolution of problems, enabling more people to be helped;
– more efficient use of limited resources in the advice sector; and
– ensuring that public services learn from mistakes, improving staff understanding, increasing efficiency, and reducing claims for compensation.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) Community Legal Service strategy (CLS), also published today, is central to delivering these wider aims. The CLS strategy sets out how the LSC proposes to make the legally aided advice system more targeted to the socially excluded and others who really need advice.

The report and CLS strategy form important contributions to the process initiated in the DCA paper “A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid” published in July 2005, and being taken forward through Lord Carter’s independent Review of legal aid procurement. Lord Carter’s final Report, to be published in the Spring, will set out a detailed vision for the future of legally aided services, including the CLS. The aim is a sustainable future for the CLS, which continues the good work of the last few years in providing quality legal services to those in need. The report and strategy are subject to the final recommendations of Lord Carter’s review, but should provide an important part of the procurement arrangements that are eventually put in place.

Research also published today by the LSC suggests that the failure to resolve such problems quickly and effectively can have wide-ranging damaging effects on health, employment and domestic situations. It also has wider implications for public services, including significant costs for agencies such as the NHS, Department for Work and Pensions and the police, estimated to cost at least £3.5 billion each year.

The ‘Getting Earlier, Better Advice To Vulnerable People’ report suggests that advice can be hard to access, and is often targeted at treating specific issues in isolation. Referral between providers can be inefficient, making full advice still harder hard to obtain, particularly for vulnerable people. The report suggests closer working between those responsible for advice provision to improve the speed and quality of advice. It recommends in particular that:

– LSC should work in partnership with local authorities to create single advice centres in local communities, better able to deal with the full range of problems people face.
– DCA and LSC work with other Government Departments to ensure better referral for help across a range of problems and sources of help, particularly for callers to helplines.
– DCA works with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) to use the experience of advice agencies and tribunals to inform and plan local public service improvements.

The report recommends that the LSC CLS Strategy ties in with local authorities to bring together advice centres at a local level so advice could be provided where needed, but with a strategic approach and in an integrated manner.