Changing the debate on advice provision: an inside view of the Low Commission
James Sandbach, campaigns and research manager to the Low Commission, evaluates its success in setting the groundwork for a new advice provision agenda, by promoting partnership working and early intervention as ways of maximising help in a time of austerity.
We have not been content just to publish a report and sit back. Rather, we have sought to be active advocates in promoting change within policy and within the advice sector itself.
After more than three years, the Low Commission is winding down its formal work. Launched at the end of 2012 under the dark shadow of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which threw social welfare advice funding out of the legal aid system, the commission’s remit and agenda have been to look forward, not back, to develop strategy for the longer term. But I believe we have achieved far more than our published outputs of research reports and recommendations, and are starting to have a practical effect on policy on the ground as well as in the Westminster village. The key thing about the commission’s approach is that we have not been content just to publish a report and sit back – the policy world is overcrowded with excellent ‘wise head’ commission reports originating from the voluntary sector, publications that proceed to gather dust. Rather, we have sought to be active advocates in promoting change within policy and within the advice sector itself. Judging by the 2,000 or so followers we have picked up on Twitter, a lot of people are interested in what we have to say.
In short, we have set an agenda and a narrative, and communicated those in follow-up reports, regular newsletters, blogs and social media, as well as developing relationships with a range of stakeholders and being active advocates in the political space. We have followed up our thought leadership with practical action, engaging with policy at all levels, and have not been afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. Not only have we pushed for the government to fix the ‘advice deficit’ through a cross-departmental strategy, but we have also challenged thinking held on to by the legal professions about traditional legal aid commissioning and delivery structures, and the priority given to legal representation in court over prevention, and we have called for the advice sector to improve the way it works, to make better use of technology, and advocated for greater collaboration at local and national levels. Strategically, the question is: how do we use constrained resources to help the most people? Our view is that little is achieved by working in silos, failing to partner with other agencies, or eschewing new technology. So we have developed the theme of partnerships, looking across boundaries (such as between justice, health and local government) and communities (at how to get advice into those key community ‘spots’, real or virtual, that already act as local social or service hubs, eg libraries, GP surgeries, children’s centres and so on).
The message that prevention is better than cure cannot be repeated, or evidenced, enough. The Low Commission’s first follow-up work (to our first report, Tackling the advice deficit, January 2014) was to commission a cost-benefit analysis review, which demonstrated that early preventative advice saves money (Prof Graham Cookson and Dr Freda Mold, Social welfare advice services – a review: final report, University of Surrey, May 2014). Public legal education (PLE) to build capability is a starting point, but we have also addressed ‘preventable demand’ issues caused by administrative flaws and poor processes in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and other agencies, and how these problems might be fixed. Where problems cannot be prevented or fixed at the point at which they occur, and need to be independently resolved, it is not enough to say that citizens should have advice or legal help to get the best out of redress systems; the redress systems themselves should be as user-friendly as possible, use the most accessible digital platforms and include incentives for problems to be resolved at first-tier level.
On all these issues, we think some progress is being made in line with our recommendations:
There is growing recognition that the neglect of PLE has been short-sighted. We have worked with the Solicitor-General to establish an all-party parliamentary group to develop the PLE agenda, which launched on 23 February 2016.
The Litigant in Person Support Strategy has expanded projects and funding to litigant in person support services such as the Personal Support Unit.
In our second report (Getting it right in social welfare law, March 2015), we called for a complete overhaul of the mandatory reconsideration (MR) process (the DWP’s internal review mechanism); the social security advisory committee is now reviewing decision-making and MR before appeals against DWP and HM Revenue and Customs decisions (the consultation closed on 15 March 2016).
Taking on board ideas for improving ‘front-end’ case-handling in courts and tribunals from ourselves, Justice and the Civil Justice Council, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, via its modernisation programme (through the reviews of structures and processes in civil courts and tribunals being undertaken by Lord Justice Briggs and Sir Ernest Ryder respectively), is looking to establish new case manager and registrar roles, and to introduce new accessible digital platforms, document assembly and information delivery approaches.
Policy and strategic co-ordination
The Low Commission’s goal is for a national advice strategy with dedicated funding support behind it, linking up a range of different advice interventions and policy programmes, and embedding these through local advice strategies co-produced with local authorities. This is more easily done in theory than practice, given the silo structures of government. In the last parliament, it took much lobbying to secure the (joint Cabinet Office- and Big Lottery Fund-funded) Advice Services Transition Fund (ASTF) programme, which is based on an advice services partnership structure. Our approach has been to build on this partnership model and we lobbied ministers to secure a brief extension to the ASTF.
Across all areas of social policy, this model of partnership working should be promoted, to enable advice to be embedded in other local public services and programmes, and to support local advice networks. Following discussion with Oliver Letwin, minister for government policy in the Cabinet Office, we prepared a paper1www.lowcommission.org.uk/About/Advice-services-after-the-2015-Spending-Review at the invitation of the Cabinet Office on how to do just that – implanting the value of preventative early advice into the Troubled Families programme, the DWP Universal Credit Support Services Framework, the Better Care Fund, city regeneration and devolution initiatives, and other government programmes. At local level, we have worked with the Advice Services Alliance’s ASTF learning and support project to promote partnership working, and have produced a local advice strategy ‘toolkit’ on how local advice sectors can work with local government and other public services to co-produce area-wide advice strategies.2www.lowcommission.org.uk/News/Local-Advice-Strategies Building on their duties under the Care Act 2014, councils can be encouraged to develop comprehensive advice strategies, and we are pleased to see that those developed by Buckinghamshire and Somerset (to name just two) specifically reference the Low Commission. In Sheffield, working with the city-wide Citizens Advice, we have actively helped in getting the health sector, city council and other public and voluntary sector heads of service around the table to agree a city-wide approach.
On a larger scale, our proposals gained significant traction in Wales, where the devolved government has established a National Advice Network to provide strategic co-ordination and put an extra £2m into advice services. To build on this progress, we have published a Wales Manifesto for Advice to develop an agenda for the next Welsh government.3www.lowcommission.org.uk/News/Launch-of-our-Advice-Services-Manifesto-in-Wales
Pro bono, public legal education and a post-implementation review
Campaigners are rightly sceptical that pro bono can fill the legal aid gaps; we are clear that it cannot. Instead, the agenda for pro bono should be about adding value and recognising the corporate social responsibility that the legal sector as a whole has towards improving access to justice. We have therefore advocated for lawyer fund generation schemes, legal sector sponsorship of initiatives such as partnership development, PLE or law school clinics, and other ways of increasing commercial sector funding for advice services including insurance, creditor payments, social impact bonds and extending the Financial Conduct Authority levy. And we have also called on trusts and foundations to provide more support for PLE, legal capability and research initiatives. We are pleased that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) seems to be interested in pursuing the idea of levy funding, though we are yet to see any detail of a proposed scheme.
Crucially, though, none of this should let the government off the hook, and we are clear (see our second report) that the MoJ must bring forward the post-implementation review of LASPO, respond to the criticisms of the justice select committee, the public accounts committee and the National Audit Office, and make immediate adjustments to the worst features such as exceptional funding and the exclusion of preventative housing advice.
Public health
Population health problems are addressed as much by public health policy interventions (eg improved sanitation) as they are by the medical services of the NHS. That ill health derives from social determinants is simply a statement of fact; today’s population health challenges are increasingly those related to mental health, the co-morbidities of an ageing population, stress, relationship and/or financial problems, and unhealthy lifestyles, all of which lead to additional ‘preventable demand’ and costs on the NHS. With the support of Prof Michael Marmot, our third report (The role of advice services in health outcomes, June 2015), produced jointly with the Advice Services Alliance, has firmly established an evidence base linking social welfare problems with poor health (the link between debt and mental health, for example, is especially strong) and identified the positive outcomes from integrating advice into health settings. We have held a conference at the Department of Health, and communicated our findings and models to health service and care commissioners across England. The health community has proven to be highly receptive to new ‘social prescription’ approaches and, in some areas, there is already significant integration of advice within healthcare settings, often funded through Public Health, clinical commissioning groups and NHS trusts. The challenge is to scale up these models.
Politics and policy
In the final analysis, however, it is politics as much as evidence that will help get the Low Commission’s proposals implemented. We have been pleased with the level of positive engagement we have had from ministers, but also frustrated at the slow pace at which our agenda has moved forwards, all the while recognising that this is a long-term rather than a short-term project. We have, though, marked out new territory for advice services in the political and policy space, and even got into party manifestos.4www.lowcommission.org.uk/About/Agenda-for-2015-20-Parliament-Manifestos-and-beyond
Reflecting on what we have achieved, two things stand out. Firstly, Lord Low is the commission’s not-so-secret weapon: across social welfare and disability rights, his contributions and authority move from strength to strength, whether campaigning to preserve employment and support allowance levels or to improve disability employment support. His authority and courtesy ensure that government ministers give him a fair hearing, even when they and he are at odds.
Secondly, the Low Commission itself has been a team effort and partnership, so I would also highlight Amanda Finlay’s huge knowledge of the justice sector, Mark Gamsu’s grip on health systems, our partnership work with the Advice Services Alliance led by Lindsey Poole, Bob Chapman’s leadership in Wales, Steve Hynes’s skilful adoption of Weber Shandwick into supporting our PR with the government, and finally all the consultative work that Richard Gutch led in the first stage of the commission’s endeavours. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my professional life to work with them all.

About the author(s)

Description: James Sandbach - author
James Sandbach was director of policy and external affairs at LawWorks from 2017 to 2021.