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Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


High Road, Benfleet

5.59 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): This petition rails against the overdevelopment of our community, particularly the proliferation of blocks of flats, which is putting immense additional pressure on the area's overburdened infrastructure. I urge councillors to reject such applications, which threaten our community and quality of life. There are a number of petitions on the issue, but this one is signed by about 1,000 excellent people who care about our community. It is supported by good people such as Mr. Brian Keeler, who has made a name for himself fighting for the public interest locally. I congratulate and pay tribute to him, the people who work with him and everyone who has signed the petition, which states:

To lie upon the Table.

2 Feb 2006 : Column 570

Legal Services Commission (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

6.1 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate so that I can raise an important issue. The recent announcement that the Legal Services Commission is ending funding for its specialist support service in England and Wales is disappointing and of great significance to the most vulnerable people in society. I have a great deal of first-hand information about the subject, as one of my caseworkers works for that service when he is not working for me, and my daughter is a housing advice worker for Shelter Cymru. Before I became an MP, I was employed by Barnardo's, the children's charity, and I worked with children and families on the front line, so I know that vulnerable families often need expert help to deal with their complex problems. Since I raised the issue a week ago in business questions, I have been contacted by a flood of organisations and individual workers, who have expressed grave concern about the ending of the service.

In the past couple of weeks, when I have discussed the issue more generally with people who do not work in the field, I have discovered that they are not aware of the work of the specialist support service. It operates in the background, advising people who offer front-line support and advice, and it produces significant results in partnership with those advisers. It is funded by the Legal Services Commission, which funds 19 specialist organisations in England and Wales to provide expert services to eligible organisations. Three types of service are provided—one-off advice; ongoing support for case work, including difficult cases dealt with by front-line workers; and training. The Welsh specialist support service has been in existence since 2002. It began as a pilot, and was incorporated into the mainstream in February 2005. The pilot was the result of vigorous lobbying from the then director of the Legal Services Commission in Wales. The service operates telephone helplines on housing, welfare benefits and debt for holders of LSC contracts and for holders of the specialist and general help quality marks. It provides support with case work to such people by holding workshops on problematic aspects of law and procedure and by discussing tactics with them. In Wales, the pilot emphasised joint working and collaboration, which led to the setting up of housing forums in south-east, south-west and north Wales that promote knowledge of housing law as well as the sharing of knowledge and skills.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is great disquiet among the population in north Wales, particularly among those who work on behalf of vulnerable people? Many citizens advice bureaux members and agencies have contacted me in the past two days, asking me to convey to my hon. Friend their strong feelings about what is going on.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that information, which echoes the intense lobbying that I have had over the past week or so, and reflects the intense disquiet in Wales and England.
2 Feb 2006 : Column 571

The Welsh service provides a formal training programme that is tailored to the needs of advisers identified over the helpline and through other feedback. The pilot project in Wales was thoroughly evaluated, including peer review of advisers' work, as late as 2004. Following that evaluation, the Legal Services Commission decided to incorporate the programme into its mainstream services. In Wales new three-year contracts were let from February 2005, which is only a year ago. The contractors in Wales are Morgans, Solicitors and Shelter Cymru, which deliver the service under a partnership arrangement. In England the three-year contracts were signed in March 2004, and in the light of the new information will be ended eight months early.

Across England and Wales the Legal Services Commission also provides specialist support services in immigration, community care, mental health, HIV/AIDS, employment and human rights, which are delivered by a mixture of voluntary organisations and firms of solicitors in private practice.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that not-for-profit organisations such as CATCH UP in Llanelli, with the help of the Wales specialist support service, have been able to deal with complex cases and stand up and fight for socially excluded people, while at the same time enlarging their own knowledge and skills, and that the termination of the service will mean the end of vital specialist support that enables their advisers to help some of the most vulnerable people in society?

Julie Morgan: I agree with my hon. Friend. Workers at the front line need the support and expert back-up of the support service, because there is no way that front-line workers can have all the knowledge and expertise that they need. They also need the support of working in partnership. The issues that are dealt with are sometimes extremely complex.

The England and Wales services are provided by such acknowledged expert agencies as the Child Poverty Action Group, the Disability Law Service, Citizens Advice, Liberty, Mind, Shelter and the Terrence Higgins Trust, among others. The Access to Justice Alliance strongly opposes the cuts to specialist support because it will prevent people getting free expert advice when they go to their local advice centre or solicitors' firm with a complex or unusual problem. Front-line workers cannot be expected to have such expertise.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on winning the debate. Does not the astonishing decision by the Legal Services Commission undermine the principle of the Community Legal Service, which means that specialist agencies can refer cases to one another? The money is well spent, because people get quality legal advice.

Julie Morgan: Absolutely. It has been acknowledged by the Legal Services Commission that the advice given is quality legal advice, as my hon. Friend says.

Two weeks ago, the providers of the service were given six months' notice and told that the service would stop in July 2006, with no apparent plans to replace the
2 Feb 2006 : Column 572
essential service that they have been providing. This has caused consternation and disbelief, especially since the Legal Services Commission evaluation and peer review of the service was so favourable.

The evaluation report states, for example, that specialist support is a distinct alternative method of delivery, it increases access to legal advice, it is used by more voluntary agencies than by private solicitors, it is friendly and helpful, users felt that the services were of high quality, clients' cases were progressed faster, unwinnable cases were stopped and, in addition, the benefits of the Community Legal Service meant that it should become a mainstream contracting option. The evaluation also concluded that there was need for a service specially targeted at Wales, owing to the need for specific Welsh legal knowledge. The evaluation was done as recently as 2003. This complete change in direction is hard to understand.

Following the evaluation, the Legal Services Commission decided to incorporate specialist support into its mainstream services and new contracts were let in 2005. However, the contracts contained a clause that enabled the Legal Services Commission to give six months' notice of termination, and it has now announced that it will be terminating the service.

It appears that there was no consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the Welsh service, and the Minister responsible, Edwina Hart, has written to me expressing her disappointment about that lack of consultation, despite mechanisms being in place, and I believe that she has written to the Minister as well asking for the Minister to look again at this decision. It is obviously important that the Westminster and Welsh Governments work closely together on an issue such as this which straddles the responsibilities of both Governments.

The rationale that the Legal Services Commission has given for the termination comes in its top-slice budget review. It says:

but says that it cannot afford to pay for second-tier specialist advice to first-tier advisers when they are supposedly contracting with specialists to provide front-line services. The Legal Services Commission seems concerned that it is paying twice for the same service, but it is not. The specialist support service does not duplicate the work of front-line advisers.

The Legal Services Commission ignores the fact that many front-line advisers are not solicitors and belong to organisations that do not have legal departments, and that the support service provides invaluable support to first-tier workers who do not necessarily have the legal expertise to deal with certain cases. The specialist support service ensures that good quality advice is given to those who need it most. It has been successful, and it has been acknowledged to have been successful.

The Legal Services Commission also seems to be ignoring the fact that the main role of the specialist support service is to raise standards among first-tier advisers—to enlarge their knowledge and skills, boost their confidence and encourage them to stand up and fight for those who are socially excluded, and one needs support and expert help to do that.
2 Feb 2006 : Column 573

In addition, the specialist support categories concern complex areas of law, and contact with a specialist means that a front-line provider, who may have difficulties finding time to research the law, can rely on the expertise of a specialist who has the knowledge to hand, and that can apply to local solicitors as well.

There is also a scarcity of highly skilled advisers in specialist support subjects, particularly in housing, welfare benefits and debt, and particularly so in Wales. I had understood that the Legal Services Commission recognised this problem and the need to raise skill levels and promote recruitment into these disciplines. The specialist support service helps build the skills of non-solicitor advisers. Without mentoring and training, I fear that many firms and agencies will muddle on, but will give poor or incomplete advice, and that the rights of the poor and disadvantaged—through no fault of these firms or agencies because they will be losing this specialist help—will go by the wayside.

The decision to end the service is likely to result in the loss of a wealth of experience and will put at risk these innovative ways of reaching out to advisers and the resulting encouragement to raise their skill levels.

I have had a host of case studies sent to me since it was known that I was to have this debate, particularly in housing, where many evictions have been avoided by the actions and expert knowledge of specialist caseworkers; in welfare benefits, where some cases have been stopped from going to court and in some cases the amount of an individual's entitlement has been doubled; and in debt, where an enormous amount of work has been done. As one solicitor who uses the service said:

The front-line tier services are very dependent on the specialist advice that they are having.

I am particularly concerned about the loss of the Welsh service, which will hit Wales very hard, with its higher levels of deprivation and housing need, and the significant occurrence of housing, benefit and debt problems. Geographically, a lot of Wales commands EU objective 1 status. The statistics show that the Welsh service is much valued and much used. During the 12 months from 1 January 2005 to 31 December 2005, the level of service given by just one agency in Wales is shown by the fact that there were 1,997 acts of assistance; 131 organisations were assisted, assistance often being given to four or five different advisers within one organisation; 182 people attended formal training courses; 47 people attended informal workshops; and 45 people attended housing law forums.

The legal aid practitioners group has said that the Legal Services Commission is being short-sighted, because the service has provided a lifeline to many people. Richard Miller, who is a director of the LAPG, has said:

Roy Morgan, principal of the Cardiff firm Morgans, which delivers the service, and LAPG chairman, has said:

2 Feb 2006 : Column 574

On Tuesday, I received a letter from the Speakeasy advice centre in Cardiff, which has used the service. It paid tribute to the way in which the service has enabled it to deal with complex cases for their clients and enlarge their knowledge and skills.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs document, "A fairer deal for legal aid", discusses delivering a fairer deal and helping vulnerable and disadvantaged people to solve their disputes faster. It states that one key barrier to providing effective advice earlier is the existence of areas in which people cannot get advice—advice deserts. Since 2000, many solicitors have voted with their feet and left legal aid work, which has created areas of the country where there is no solicitor or agency with a LSC contract in a subject relevant to the client. As a result, the LSC has become increasingly dependent on voluntary sector agencies to deliver legal services in social welfare categories, but one cannot expect those caseworkers to have the in-depth knowledge provided by the specialist service.

The specialist support service was seen as a welcome reform. The initiative was designed to improve services for poor and vulnerable people, and a single body, the LSC, was charged with planning and directing a comprehensive pattern of legal services. It was a radical step in an environment that often seems to be all stick and no carrot for legal aid practitioners and voluntary organisation advisers, and it was a positive measure that helped agencies equip themselves to meet the higher advice standards urged upon them.

I cannot overstate the strain on front-line practitioners who work with homeless people or in other difficult areas. I sincerely hope that there is a chance to save the specialist support service, which plays a vital role in providing top quality advice and training. I urge the Department for Constitutional Affairs to ask the LSC to reconsider the matter, because the service has proved its worth. Practitioners from all over Wales and England have told me how difficult it will be to manage without expert help, but we want people who have few resources to access the best help, which the service provides. I urge the Minister to reconsider the decision.

6.17 pm

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