On Monday I was visiting our Eastbourne Advice Centre with members of the BHT Board. We met someone whose son-in-law had recently passed away. She told us about the challenges her daughter had faced when her husband had to give up work because of his cancer. The lack of knowledge and joined-up responses from different government agencies was as shocking as it was distressing. At the very time when households need support, the complexity of the system seemed to conspire against them so cruelly.
Fortunately, they were supported and advised by a specialist adviser we employ, funded by MacMillan Cancer Care. She was able to help them navigate through the complexity of the system and provide advice and guidance, providing them with some help at a time of unspeakable sorrow.
But the availability of advice is not so freely available since changes to legal aid funding from April. At BHT we are coming to the end of a process that has seen us halving the advice, support and representation we offer at our advice centre in Brighton. We have lost some very experienced and knowledgeable members of staff, whose expertise is probably lost forever and Brighton and Hove is the poorer for it.
I recently received an email from a colleague at our Brighton Advice Centre, concerning the decision to remove welfare benefit advice from legal aid funding. It sets out the situation far better than I could hope to do. He wrote:
“The exclusion of welfare benefits advice from legal aid funding …… will serve only to disempower many people by restricting their access to legal advice and therefore justice. In practical terms, it is a disaster for hundreds of vulnerable people living within the Brighton and Hove area.
“I am concerned that the response to the loss of legal aid funding for welfare benefits matters within Brighton and Hove has been insufficient. Local advice organisations are already working at capacity. Invariably, this will mean many vulnerable people will be exposed to one of the major precipitators of homelessness. The same is true for the loss of funding for debt advice.
“During my short time at BHT Advice, several clients have told me that the advice and support they received in relation to a welfare benefits matter or a debt matter literally saved their life. Whether these were overstatements or not, they underscore the point that the stress and anxiety caused by financial disempowerment can have a devastating impact on both mental health and physical health. In most cases it will at least reduce the coping abilities of the affected individual, exposing them to the risk of spiralling problems and very negative consequences.
“Although the loss of debt advice and welfare benefits advice at BHT Advice is very regrettable, it is understandable given the economic implications of maintaining this element of the advice service. I am more concerned about the readiness of BHT as a whole to meet with client demand for this type of support. So far, the response to the legal aid changes has seemed a bit passive – more like reluctant resignation than innovation.”
I find what my colleague has written very challenging, and I am not sure what more BHT could have done to improve our readiness. We did campaign and raised our concerns about the consequences of the cuts to legal aid.
I think that in the years to come, the government (of whatever colour) will realise that the restriction of legal aid has had consequences more costly that the £350 million saved by the reduction in legal aid funding including for housing, welfare benefits and debt advice and representation. It will be reintroduced, although probably called something else. Unfortunately we will have lost the expertise of some brilliant, selfless advisers.