Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Fourth Report


2  The decision to end funding for Specialist Support Services

Background

5. Specialist Support began as a pilot scheme in 2000. It was created in response to the report Access to Legal Services: The Contribution of Alternative Approaches by the Policy Studies Institute. The report suggested a need for alternative and innovative approaches to improve the delivery of publicly funded legal and advice services, in terms of both public access and quality.[1] Following an evaluation of the pilot scheme, the LSC let mainstream contracts for Specialist Support services in April 2004. The pilots were funded from the Civil Top Slice Budget.

6. Based on national provision and a tendering process, 17 organisations in England and 2 in Wales were granted contracts to provide specialist support running for a period of three financial years until March 2007[2] in England and January 2008 in Wales and with a budget of approximately £3m per annum. Nationally, these consist of 11 not-for-profit organizations, 5 solicitors' firms and 3 barristers' chambers.[3]

7. The services that were provided included the following:

  • Advice via telephone, fax, email and letter;
  • Support with casework;
  • Training Events;
  • Direct Casework;
  • Direct Supervision.[4]

8. Support was provided in the following categories of law: Community Care; Debt; Employment; Housing; Human Rights; Immigration; Mental Health; Public Law and Welfare Benefits.

9. As part of the Review of Top Slice,[5] providers of Specialist Support Services together with stakeholders such as the Law Society and LAPG were invited to give their views on the extent to which: Specialist Support Services met the LSC Corporate Priorities; were compatible with the LSC's vision for the Community Legal Service and demonstrated value for money, over a 7-week period (18th August to the 30th September 2005).

The decision making process

10. Following the consultation, the LSC made the decision to end Specialist Support Services. The providers were given six months notice and informed that the service would cease in July 2006. In oral evidence to the Committee, Mr Harvey admitted that the consultation strategy was flawed, since at no point prior to the decision being made were the relevant stakeholders informed that one option was to cease funding Specialist Support Services.[6] Mr Harvey also admitted that the Commission made the decision without consulting the Welsh Assembly (which contributes funding to advice provision in Wales).[7]

11. Although ministers were told of the decision, the policy was formed by the LSC.[8] On 2 February 2006, in an Adjournment debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Bridget Prentice MP, said:

    [I]nitially, I shared some of the concerns about withdrawal of funding, so I understand why it worries my hon. Friend and other Members who are here, particularly those from Wales […] I will continue to monitor the situation carefully and would be very pleased to hear feedback from them [Members] on how the proposals have impacted on their constituents.[9]

Evidence from providers

12. A large number of submissions to us from stakeholders, many of them providers of Specialist Support Services, criticised the decision to end the service. Many also complained about the decision making process. The Legal Aid Practitioner Group pointed out that:

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants stated:

    Our concerns are two-fold. Firstly we are advising practitioners in an area of law, immigration and asylum, which is increasingly complex given the rate of legislation and plethora of new rules in recent years. One effect may be that non-specialist legal advisers, particularly those working in isolated conditions in smaller legal firms and voluntary organisations, may not be able to continue offering advice in these areas of law if they cannot readily access the expertise and support of their specialist peers. Secondly, we are concerned that this will in turn impact on the ability of a generally vulnerable group, immigration and asylum applicants, to access high quality advice. We are concerned at the potential impact of this decision on those who, by nature of their migrant status, may run a greater risk of poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.[11]

Citizens Advice, Child Poverty Action Group and London Advice Services posed the question "is it not a huge waste of public money to pilot a scheme for 3 years, carry out a thorough evaluation and award 3 year contracts based on that evaluation and then cut the service?".[12]


1   Ev 10 Back

2   The English based specialist pilots started in 2001 but the Wales Specialist Support Service did not start until July 2002. Whilst 3-year contracts were awarded to English based agencies in 2004, the pilot in Wales did not end until 31 January 2005 and new 3-year contracts were granted to Welsh agencies from 1 February 2005 Back

3   Ev 10 Back

4   Ibid Back

5   The 'Top Slice' budget was set up as part of the newly created Legal Services Commission (LSC) in 2000. The budget covers payments from the Community Legal Service (CLS) Fund on a number of experimental initiatives not already covered by other areas of the legal aid scheme. The review of the Top Slice Budget was undertaken to determine whether these initiatives, some of which started some time ago, should continue to command Top Slice funding Back

6   Qq 1, 39, 49 Back

7   Qq 69-71 Back

8   Q 25 Back

9   HC Deb, 2 February 2006, cols 575-578 Back

10   Ev 14 Back

11   Ev 18 Back

12   Ev 21 Back


 
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Prepared 14 March 2006