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Budget's £20m for advice agencies 'a fifth of what is being taken away'

22 March 2012

Lord Bach has said the budget announcement of an additional £20m for UK advice agencies for the next two years was “about a fifth of what is being taken away” through the legal aid cuts.

Speaking at the launch of the new Mary Ward legal centre in Lincoln’s Inn last night, the Labour justice minister said the “transitory nature of the funding” made it impossible for the voluntary sector to plan for the future.

“It can be turned off as quickly as it is turned on,” he said.

Lord Bach said there was a “horrible irony” in celebrating the launch of a superb new facility for social welfare law at a time when it was in “deadly danger” from the legal aid bill.

“If the bill is enacted in the form the government wants, the centre stands to lose a huge amount of income from legal aid and its existence could be put into doubt,” he warned.

Lord Bach said part 1 of the bill had received a good “going over” in the Lords and nine amendments had been passed by a coalition of Labour peers, cross-benchers and “too few” Liberal Democrats.

He said the defeats inflicted on the government were “not trivial”, and included ensuring that welfare benefit appeals stayed in scope, legal aid was available for all victims of domestic violence and clients were not forced to access advice via a single telephone gateway.

Lord Bach raised the issue of financial privilege, which the government used to force through the Welfare Reform Bill, following amendments in the Lords, and some commentators fear will be used again with the legal aid bill.

“Will the government claim financial privilege even though the amounts alleged to be saved in this case are paltry?” he asked.

“Will they try and overturn all the amendments, even those with no financial impacts? If they do, it would be an absolute scandal.”

Margie Butler, the chief executive of the Mary Ward legal centre, said the £20m in funding would “go absolutely nowhere” in meeting the funding gap left by the legal aid cuts.

“We need long-term sustainable funding,” she said. “If they scrap legal aid, they must give us other funding to do the work we’re doing.”

Justice for All, a coalition of advice agencies including CABx and the Law Centres Federation, published a survey of 230 advice organisations this week, which showed that three quarters were suffering serious funding cuts, and one in five saying their survival was under threat.

The survey also showed that more than half were cutting back on services for people with the most complex problems and a third cutting back on the number of volunteers.

A spokesman for Justice for All said: “£20m a year for just two years is not nearly enough to cover the £100m annual shortfall charity advice providers are facing. And it is not a long-term plan for the advice sector.”

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Legal Aid