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2 Dec 2009 : Column 83WH—continued

Significantly, figures from Citizens Advice show that bureaux in England and Wales deal with 9,300 new debt problems and 8,000 new benefit problems every working day.

That is reflected in my own constituency. The Banbury CAB tells me that for the first half of this year, it received 7,300 inquiries compared with 11,000 for the whole of the previous year, and the number of individual clients whom it sees is up by 20 per cent. on the same period last year. That is largely because of the recession. There has been a substantial increase in inquiries relating to allowances for jobseekers and redundancies.

Bureaux are constantly having to scrabble around, getting grants from the Legal Services Commission or, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands said, hoping that they can persuade the Big Lottery Fund or someone else that they are doing something unique or innovative, so that they receive grant funding for what is unique or innovative. However, they have considerable difficulties with core funding.

It is time that the Government considered seriously how they manage to ensure decent core funding for citizens advice bureaux up and down the country. I should have thought that it was self-evident to the Government that the £10 million that they gave the bureaux earlier this year to facilitate increased opening hours has been put to extremely good use. An extra session late on a Monday in Banbury has enabled the CAB there to see 370 new clients just since March. Those people might otherwise have found it difficult to get into the bureau during the hours when it was open.

We cannot allow the future of bureaux to be permanently uncertain. That is very debilitating for volunteers, who spend considerable time training so that they can give
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very good advice. They also spend considerable time giving advice, and then they have to spend considerable time worrying about services and fundraising to keep them going.

David Taylor: May I reiterate that the AHA funding finishes at 5 pm 17 weeks today, on 31 March 2010? The amounts are small, but the continued tracking up of unemployment means that the cases that citizens advice bureaux deal with that relate to debt, benefits and employment will continue to track up. That must be matched by a continuation of the funding, at least for 12 further months.

Tony Baldry: I agree. Those problems will not disappear in March. Indeed, people will have continuing problems with unemployment and other consequences of the recession for many months to come. My request to the Minister is this. I appreciate that for any Department finding new money is always difficult, but it should be possible for Ministers at least to undertake to work with Citizens Advice at national level to set up a working group or working party to see how all the various pockets of money that different Departments are giving Citizens Advice can be better co-ordinated and made more sustainable.

Such a group could also ascertain how we could ensure that the CAB movement and the core activities of individual bureaux were sustained against a background of local authority funding becoming increasingly difficult. That is because for local authorities it is a discretionary spend, and at a time when their budgets are under pressure, they will inevitably have to give up or reduce discretionary spending. However much they would like to maintain it, they will have to reduce it ahead of mandatory spending.

Irrespective of the Government who are elected in March, April or May of next year, I hope that those of us who aspire to be here after the next general election will not find ourselves having to attend a debate like this next June or July in a situation in which bureaux up and down the country face wholesale difficulties. The bureaux have demonstrated the value that they give the community. They demonstrate that they give good value for money. It is time that the work of the volunteers involved was supported by consistent funding from central Government.

9.59 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I shall attempt to keep my remarks short, as I know that others wish to contribute. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. We are here to celebrate the 70th birthday of a very important core service. Six political parties are represented in the Chamber today, which underlines the fact that we all agree- [Interruption.] I am coming to the redoubtable independent hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies); it is good to see him.

I will not go over the history of Citizens Advice because it has been well covered. Of the initial bureaux, three were in Wales-in Swansea, Abergavenny and Conwy. We now have 31 throughout Wales. They deal with a huge number of problems every day. My concern is about community legal advice centres, and I shall confine myself to those because of the limited time available.

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The aim of CLACs was to centralise and standardise provision, but there were unintended consequences of Government attempts to privatise the advice network. For example, when the successful bidder was an outside provision company, such as the American company A4e, it threatened the existence of bureaux that had previously been in receipt of council grants. Remember that each CAB is an individual charity. As the requirements for CLACs are more stringent, if we are not careful other, smaller, third-party advice groups are also likely to lose out, or, at best, to become sub-contractors. The main bidder will salami slice the funding and contract out the work to the people who were doing it before.

There are further concerns about what will happen when the three-year contracts are up and local provision such as the CAB has been lost, but the original preferred bidder does not bid again as the contract is not sufficiently profitable. I understand that there have been problems with the CLAC in Gateshead, the original pilot. One of the main providers hit financial problems and could not get further grant support, as it would have invalidated their original tender. That led to a two-tier service being provided to local advice seekers-defeating the purpose of the new system. I am pleased to say that that does not happen in Wales.

The Welsh Assembly Government and the Legal Services Commission announced in March this year that they were concerned about the possible consequences of CLAC and community legal advice network, or CLAN, developments, and they announced a feasibility study. The Assembly Government have set a funding route, under "Making Legal Rights a Reality in Wales", without compromising the future of third sector providers, which include not only the CAB but specialist smaller charity organisations, such as debt and benefits organisations-Speakeasy in Cardiff, for example. The original situational study took place in Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend. I am pleased to say that the Assembly Government are taking a different route on the CLAC question.

Furthermore, the Assembly Government introduced other initiatives, such as "Better Advice: Better Health", which placed CAB advisers in primary health care settings. That holistic approach meant that when a patient came in and was diagnosed as suffering from depression caused by personal circumstances, for example, a CAB adviser was able to advise and help, rather than the patient being prescribed drugs or being put on a waiting list to see a counsellor. Even outside that progressive project, CAB advice works, as shown by the study conducted over three years by Bangor university, which showed that advice seekers were less anxious or depressed about their situation after being assisted by Citizens Advice.

Citizens advice bureaux have also received money from the Assembly Government for another programme to improve benefit take-up for families, especially those with disabled children. Many families are unaware of which benefits they can claim and do not take the full rate that they should receive. The Assembly Government have also spent £750,000 to create an integrated telephone service in Wales.

However, as others have said there are clearly problems facing bureaux. While the banks have been bailed out, the bureaux have not, apart from the £10 million, which is welcome-it would be wrong of me to say otherwise.
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Before the credit crunch, we knew that many people had borrowed beyond their ability to repay and, with personal debt estimated at about £1.4 trillion, the country could be said to have been drowning in debt. People need the assistance of organisations such as Citizens Advice, but, as the waiting lists show, it is not able to help everybody who needs assistance. Better funding to some areas is required. Additional central funding for my local CAB has been forthcoming, but the recession has led to huge pressures and there is no way I can see them being alleviated in the near future.

It is a fantasy to think that the need for this type of service will end once the country is back in economic growth. There will be a lag as people who have been made unemployed find their savings running out, and a human crisis as people struggle to avoid losing their homes or being made bankrupt. To deal with all that, proper funding of bureaux services is required.

Briefly, on local authority funding of services, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made the point well that where pressures on core services appear, discretionary spend will clearly be cut back.

Finally, on a personal note, I should say that my local bureau is vital. We have an energetic, young team who are constantly there to deal with any query. I know for a fact that major issues such as housing, benefits and debt restructuring are sort of Cinderella matters in any lawyer's practice. To be honest, no lawyer in a rural setting would go into those areas-I speak as a lawyer myself-but bureaux do. They offer a valuable and specialist service. Through the good offices of George Williams and others in Dolgellau, I am kept up to speed on those and several other issues. I appreciate that the current economic climate will be with us for some years, but bureaux provide such a core service that there must be a case for direct central funding. I hope that that will be the direction of travel in due course.

10.7 am

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I also commend the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate, which is very worth while, given the 70th anniversary that we are acknowledging. Each hon. Member who preceded me indicated the value and worth of the citizens advice bureaux in their localities and I will be no different. I have found them to be tremendously helpful, particularly in times of economic decline, when I am sure that every constituency suffers.

In Northern Ireland we have had a particularly difficult time. Factories have closed. One closed in East Londonderry and more than 1,000 people were made unemployed in the space of a few short months. The CAB arrived and set up an advice clinic to assist, and it has done so regularly. Because it does that, it is able to provide a safety net to people to ensure that they make the transition back to work. It is a somewhat longer transition, but it none the less provides them with help and assistance that they otherwise would not get.

I will be brief, but I want to dwell for a few moments on the requirement to ensure that, beyond 31 March, as has been outlined, bureaux across the United Kingdom will be able to continue their excellent work. I fully endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in an earlier intervention.
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Some of the problems are not about the quality of the service that bureaux provide, but about the fact that they are inundated with clients and so overwhelmed with problems that, on occasion, staff do not answer the phones simply because they are under such pressure and there are queues of people physically trying to get in.

In and of itself, that necessitates further funding. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the economic situation will probably be as bad as it is at the moment, so it is essential that we all support the CAB across the United Kingdom, although different funding arrangements will apply in the different devolved regions.

I have an excellent referral service in my area and I would hope that other hon. Members do too. The CAB does a remarkable job of trying to assist the people who come through its doors. However, it is one thing to offer the CAB advice, help and support, but it wants something more tangible: a continuation of the funding regime and, where possible, an increase in funding to deal with the consequences of the underlying economic problems facing the entire nation.

I close by endorsing what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands has done in raising this subject and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.

10.10 am

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): Like my constituents, I thank the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for raising this subject. At a time of recession, areas such as Blaenau Gwent suffer as much redundancy, unemployment and debt as anywhere else. The interesting thing is that, after 70 years, we are still talking about basically the same things. Our constituents need virtually the same help that they did in 1939-in some areas, they might need even more.

The most important thing about Citizens Advice is that it cares. People can go to other organisations or bureaux, but they will tend to get five or 10 minutes and then out they go. Citizens advice bureaux take their time. Their people are embedded in their communities, so they care about the people and the area they live in. In places such as Blaenau Gwent that is extremely important. We have heard about contacting individuals over the internet or the phone, but in areas such as mine, with an ageing population, people want personal contact-that is extremely important.

We had four bureaux in Blaenau Gwent, but we are now down to one, with one outreach. Over the years, the bureaux have closed as a result of cash restraints and constraints. Having said that, the service that remains around the country is extremely important, as so many hon. Members have said. If we think about it, we get paid for being councillors, but so many of the volunteers in the CAB do what they do for the love of it, and we must recognise that.

The CAB advisers are experts. Of course, bureaux are grateful for the money that they have had so far, and we hope that that money will continue. However, the Government and other bodies appoint advisers and consultants by the hour to look into things such as
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benefit reform. We should speak to the experts and pay them-we should consult CAB and pay them for their expertise. The people at the sharp end know where the problems are. We do not need management consultants to tell us where they are-the CAB can do that. Perhaps there is a role there that we can consider.

The Government have pledged that everyone leaving school will have a training or work place. When it comes to getting advice and guidance and learning about the community, there is nowhere better than the CAB, so why do we not use it and pay it for that work? That would be a wonderful opportunity for young people.

Another great thing about the CAB is that it does not matter whether someone is 10 or 90, because the CAB treat everyone the same-there is no age limit. Bureaux are an extremely important contact in our communities.

Another issue that I would ask the Government to consider is shared premises. I have spoken many times to our local authorities, which have huge buildings, but the CAB are forced to pay rents and moneys elsewhere.

Mr. Hoyle: This is about shared buildings. I share an office with the bureaux and the welfare rights service-it is a one-stop shop for the three bodies that deliver for the people we represent. That is the way forward, so I must endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Dai Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. We have the buildings and the facilities, so let us do things together.

We have looked at the CAB over 70 years. The problem with grant funding is that although it can be given, it can just as easily be taken away. We must find a core fund to make sure that the past 70 years will be not the last for the bureaux, but a growing period and the basis for another 70 years and beyond.

10.15 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies)-I think that I can call him my hon. Friend-and I congratulate him on his contribution. He speaks with great passion, and we all empathise with what he said. This is a timely debate. It is a celebration of 70 years of diligence and hard work, but it is also tinged with the hope that the Minister will be able to help us in a few moments.

My constituency is served by two citizens advice bureaux, one in Cardigan and one in Aberystwyth. I have worked with them on numerous occasions on not only projects and general issues, but specific individual cases, and I can testify to the expertise of their volunteers and paid workers. Cardigan CAB has told me that it has experienced a 29 per cent. increase in inquiries during the recession. As we heard earlier, that is the experience of many bureaux across the country.

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