The new Greater Manchester Law Centre could mark a turn in the tide for the area’s advice services
Manchester has endured more devastating cuts to its advice sector than just about anywhere else in the country. A combination of changing political priorities and the need to find large savings in the local council’s budget has led to a much diminished offering for residents seeking help with social welfare law problems in a city that previously boasted arguably the most comprehensive advice services in the country. Hopefully, the opening of the Greater Manchester Law Centre last month will mark a turning point in this recent history of decline.1www.gmlaw.org.uk
Five years ago, Manchester City Council made deep cuts to its in-house service, Manchester Advice (MA). Campaigners at the time argued that the council leadership were hostile to MA as they mistakenly believed that advice services led to ‘welfare dependency’. The drastic reduction of the service was partly justified by the council’s decision to tender for a new advice service in partnership with the Legal Services Commission, the predecessor of the Legal Aid Agency.
Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau successfully bid to establish the Community Legal Advice Service, but it led to the closure of the city’s two remaining Law Centres, South Manchester and Wythenshawe, which were not part of the winning tender. Due to further grant cuts, the Citizens Advice service has been forced to retrench and has shut branches including at Moss Side, in the south of the city. In an ironic twist, which is not lost on the founders of the new service (see news, page 4), this has become the site of the new Law Centre.
The Law Centre’s board strongly believes that poorer communities prefer face-to-face advice services and should not be forced down a digital-by-default path for help with their legal problems. It argues that for many people in reality digital-only means no service, because they lack the technology or skills to access it. This view was backed up by the consultation meetings the centre held with its local community. The overwhelming feedback from the people at these meetings was that they must be able to talk to an adviser directly. This does present a problem as while there will be plenty of clients on the doorstep of the new Law Centre, it is intended to serve all of Greater Manchester, an area that consists of 10 local authorities, including the city.
The Law Centre is campaigning on the clear message that the advice needs of poor and disadvantaged communities have to be met.
Not so many years ago, the conurbation of Greater Manchester had nine Law Centres, but due to local authority and legal aid cuts only two remain, Bury and Rochdale (a previous employer of this author). Currently, the new Law Centre receives a grant from a charitable trust that pays for a development worker post. From this month, an advice service will be provided on a pro bono basis by volunteers, but the centre hopes to raise more cash from charitable sources to increase its capacity to provide specialist advice and representation across the large catchment area it has been established to serve.
In its funding plans, the new service may be pointing the way to the future. Due to central government’s decision to phase out the grant it pays to support local government, many authorities do not have any spare cash for fresh initiatives such as the Law Centre. Charitable trusts, therefore, are increasingly the only option to enable new ventures to get off the ground.
A new service focused on a city region may also have the potential to call on the region-wide budget. Representatives of the Law Centre have met with local MP Andy Burnham, who has been selected as Labour’s candidate for the new mayor of Greater Manchester. They believe Burnham is very supportive of the centre and that he understands the importance of providing a high-quality legal advice service across the Greater Manchester area.
A large portion of the region’s NHS and other budgets will be devolved to the city region (see ‘Law in the cities’, page 8). There is, therefore, the opportunity to develop a regional strategy for legal advice, but Burnham has previously expressed fears that the devolved budget could be used by the government to pass on NHS and other cuts to local councils. Although finding cash for new regional advice services is not a done deal, the Greater Manchester Law Centre is campaigning on the clear message that the advice needs of poor and disadvantaged communities have to be met and that the politicians must respond.
The fledgling Law Centre can at least count on the support of one local councillor who attended one of its consultation meetings in May last year. The then newly elected local politician explained he fully supported the establishment of the new service, as he was originally from Somalia and had only managed to secure political asylum with the help of South Manchester Law Centre, before it was forced to close. ■