Fears For The Future Of Citizens Advice

CITIZENS Advice services in Wales face “decimation” as a result of major changes to the funding system, it has been claimed.

Politicians fear reforms designed to improve the quality of legal advice could end up cutting off vital investment in the bureaux.

Advice is given to some of the most vulnerable members of society at 52 main offices and 159 secondary advice outlets across Wales.

In 2006-07, the organisation received more than £8.2m in grants from local government, the Legal Services Commission and the Assembly Government.

But it is now proposed that bodies will have to bid for pooled funding from the Legal Services Commission and local authorities to provide services in eight areas across Wales.

Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd is concerned this could pit multinational companies against not-for-profit charities.

Over the border, the failure of Hull Citizens Advice to win a contract means the service in the city now faces closure.

Stating he had “grave reservations” about the funding process, Mr Lloyd said: “The example of Hull’s Citizens Advice Bureau should serve as a warning to us here in Wales. Citizens Advice Centres in Wales already do a lot of legal work and this obviously delivers a substantial amount of funding.

“Were this funding to be taken away from them, and given to these private companies, then the worry is that the Citizens Advice network would become depleted so as not to be able to carry out its other key role of dealing with people’s financial problems.”

In 2006-07, Citizens Advice in Wales gave help on 281,219 issues. These included: 95,674 inquiries related to welfare benefits and tax credits; 91,368 inquiries in relation to debt; 19,501 related to employment; 15,536 housing issues; and 12,481 legal issues.

The organisation has 1,600 staff in Wales, three quarters of whom are volunteers.

Fran Targett, director of Citizens Advice Cymru, said: “The proposals couple together funding for Community Legal Services by the Legal Services Commission and core funding provided by local authorities in winner-takes-all contracts covering large procurement areas. The agenda poses significant risks as well as opportunities for the voluntary sector and the Citizens Advice service in particular.

“Clearly if the service is unsuccessful [in its bid], it would lead to the decimation of services provided by Citizens Advice Bureaux in those areas.”

Paul Davies, Legal Services Commission director in Wales, said: “These new services will increase the number of people helped and encourage those who fail to seek advice or who find it more difficult to access legal services. When we commission these new services we will attract many individual organisations from the voluntary and private sectors who are specialists in their field and who can offer a wide range of quality services.

“This model provides ample opportunity for the voluntary sector to collaborate with other organisations to help deliver advice to meet the increasing needs of our communities. Four Community Legal Advice services are now open in England, three are run as a partnership, which includes the local CAB.”

Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne AM said: “Their work could not be more important as hard-pressed, hard-working families cope with rising fuel and food prices. What people want is clear, impartial, reliable advice to help them get through these difficult economic times and overcome the many hurdles thrown in their way by the Westminster and Assembly government in terms of accessing public services.”

Lib Dem AM Peter Black said: “The Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice services are doing an outstanding job with few resources and increasing demands on their time due to rising debt, home repossessions and many other issues. It is important that the Welsh Assembly Government and local councils work together to bolster their services and improve the resources available to them.

“In that regard I would very much regret a move towards a single provider on the basis of a competitive tender that may endanger the advice services that are already in place. We must not blindly follow the English model and repeat their mistakes, but find a Welsh solution that keeps all parties on board and provides the best possible service to the public.”

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said: “We are aware of the concerns of third- sector advice providers about the move to the joint commissioning, funding and monitoring of advice services as outlined in Making Legal Rights a Reality in Wales.

“We are working closely with the Legal Services Commission and other partners to ensure that the Welsh perspective is taken into account and that we learn all the lessons we can from the experiences to date in England.”

He added: “The most important thing is to ensure equity of access to good quality advice services, coherency, cohesion and value for money.”