As we reach the midway point of the year, I have been reflecting on how BHT is doing in what are very testing times. My conclusion is that, overall, BHT is doing well, with excellent services continuing to be provided to clients. We have achieved financial stability, and BHT’s reputation continues to be very positive. There is just one area of serious concern, the future funding of our Legal Services.
A year ago I had ten areas of concern yet, one by one, the challenges facing us have been addressed. The highlights of the year so far include:
our supported housing services, particularly in Brighton and Hove, where the scale of the funding cuts have been limited to just 4.5% over 4 years;
- The women’s counselling service, Threshold, whose future looked bleak until we secured £393,000 from the Big Lottery Fund through its Reaching Communities programme;
- Finding Futures, based in Hastings, has secured £497,000 from the Reaching Communities Programme of the Big Lottery Fund and a new contract with East Sussex County Council;
- First Base Day Centre has undergone a major refurbishment. After twelve months, restoration work to the building, St Stephen’s Hall has been completed and the centre is due to be formally re-opened at an event on Thursday 7 July 2011;
- The Accommodation for Work Project was in the running for the 2011 National Lottery Awards’ “Best Voluntary/Charity Project”. While the project did not make it through to the final round, it was nevertheless well-deserved recognition for this service.
At the beginning of April, BHT left the Affinity Sutton Group The move, which was supported by Affinity Sutton, is designed to allow BHT to thrive as an independent organisation by being ‘fleet of foot’ in responding to new opportunities presenting themselves to us.
One of the most exciting plans we have is to take client involvement to a new level, building on the co-design and co-production of services to spread co-delivery across the organisation. This will include the BHT Intern Programme which is attracting much interest and media coverage.
The main challenge facing BHT is the future of our Legal Services. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke MP, recently published the Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill that contains proposals to reduce the legal aid budget by £350 million. Much of the work that our three advice centres undertake (in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings) will no longer attract legal aid funding. In Brighton alone, we are currently funded to take on around 1,400 housing cases. This is expected to drop by more than 500 cases each year. There will no longer be legal aid funding for any welfare benefits work and face to face debt advice will by telephone only, and as with housing, only be available for those at imminent risk of losing their home.
The impact on these cuts will see an increase in homelessness, family breakdown, and general hardship. With the loss of around £0.5 million funding, our advice services will see considerable contraction and, nationwide, there will be a de-skilling of the sector as advisers, with many years experience, will move elsewhere.
BHT has been campaigning hard to oppose the cuts to legal aid and will continue to do so. I would encourage you to write to the five Members of Parliament in the areas where we have advice centres urging them to support funding for independent advice services. The MPs are Simon Kirby (Brighton Kemp Town), Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion), Mike Weatherley (Hove), Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) and Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye).
If you would like to support the campaign to save Legal Aid, please view the short film on the Justice For All website and sign the online petition. The government has listened on a number of issues; there is no reason why they should not listen on this occasion and reverse these measures which will lead to an increase in homelessness along the coastal south east.