A call-in to reconsider cuts to legal advice services in Southwark was rejected on Tuesday (May 12), despite claims that the most vulnerable will suffer. 

The council approved cuts of more than £160,000 to the services in February – Citizens Advice Bureau Southwark will suffer an annual loss of £130,000, with the rest taken from Southwark Law Centre, which provides specialist legal advice on issues such as immigration, employment, housing, and welfare.  

The council said the move would be mitigated by a “number of programmes elsewhere such as older people’s hub, disability hub and people with disabilities prioritised by the Local Support team”. 

It put money into its in-house Local Support service, formerly Rightfully Yours, which focuses on helping people with universal credit.  

But councillors and representatives from CAB and SLC argued that the in-house service could not replace the independent advice services.  

It emerged during the call-in, assessed by the overview and scrutiny committee, that neither CAB nor SLC had been informed about the cuts until October 2019, despite being engaged with the council’s summer consultation on the future of the services.  

It also emerged that the cut to SLC equated to 60 complex cases they would be unable to deal with.  

Lib Dem Councillor Jane Salmon called-in the decision last month – only on the cut to CAB as the cut to SLC was not enough money to be deemed a ‘key decision’.  

She claimed the decision was now “out of date” in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and that it was “in breach of the Equality Act”.   

During the call-in on Tuesday, Cllr Salmon said today’s circumstances “could not have been foreseen” when the legal advice services equalities impact assessment was done in November 2019. 

“Even then it was acknowledged there was a likelihood that the cuts to the budget may have a disproportionate impact on clients who fall into one or more protected characteristics and those experiencing disadvantage or discrimination.  

“Six months later and our residents have been impacted by Covid-19 in a devastating way.  

“For many their health, housing, employment, and benefits have been severely affected,” she said.  

She added that “many residents” would be seeking legal advice in the months and years ahead.  

“This is not the time to limit the advice and support that CAB and the SLC give – they are needed in their full capacity more than ever,” she said.  

Lib Dem Councillor Anood Al-Samerai, covering for Cllr Victor Chamberlain, who backed the call-in but was unable to attend, said the process around the cuts to the contracts was “done poorly”.  

“If the process had been followed properly, then the council would have understood the impact of the cut and the fact that the proposed mitigation, basically transferring the money to Rightfully Yours, doesn’t work and doesn’t help in terms of what those services provide,” she said.

Cllr Al-Samerai added that the impact of Covid-19 makes the cuts “much worse” and that the advice services were “life-changing” for the “most desperate” people  in the borough.  

Tim Clark, from CAB Southwark, said the impact of Covid-19 on residents was “huge”.  

“We are experiencing higher demand for help, mainly in benefits, specifically universal credit, […] for employment related advice, specifically around unfair dismissal and redundancy. 

“We expect as the situation continues we will also experience much higher demand for debt advice as people face longer periods of pressure on their incomes, and we also anticipate housing enquiries to increase as current protection from eviction measures are lifted in time,” he said.  

Mr Clark said the impact of the outbreak will be “felt disproportionately by people sharing protected characteristics […] race, disability, age”.  

“We are going to need to be looking at the number of outreaches where we currently deliver advice and also it’s likely that we’ll have reduced capacity to deliver our face to face drop-ins,” he said, adding that a “a cut of that size” was  “not possible to absorb” without there being some impact on services. 

Mr Clark said the advice services should have been told about the cuts before the consultation and they should have featured “front, left, and centre” in it, allowing people to have “the full facts at their disposal”.  

He said that although the in-house council service offered “an important part of the advice process”, it was limited in what it could offer.  

“We can provide wider ranging advice on benefits, if there are any problems we can seek to address those through various appeal processes, we can deliver debt advice, we can liaise with creditors, we can do a whole range of things to mitigate the impact of debt on people, housing advice, employment advice, immigration advice, there’s a whole range of things that we do that is not within the remit of the Rightfully Yours team,” he said.  

Mr Clark said it was the wrong time to cut the advice services and getting extra money because of the Covid-19 crisis did not mitigate lost funding.  

Sally Causer, director of SLC, said “lessons should be learned” from the process around the cuts, adding the “whole process was a bit of horse-trading” with “no rationale”.  

“The council and ourselves need to work together to look at what the long-term impact is going to be.  

“It’s really great that the council aren’t taking any action around rent arrears at the moment […] but we know that there have been 9,000 new claims for universal credit just in the three job centres across Southwark.” 

She added: “When the courts reopen, when the council has to start taking action again for the increase in rent arrears, it’s going to be a perfect storm.” 

Cllr Rebecca Lury, deputy leader and cabinet member for culture, leisure, equalities and communities, said that the money put into the in-house service was “not a direct replacement” for CAB or SLC.

She said she would be “very happy” to learn from the process around the cuts.   

“It’s worth saying that the money put into the council’s service is not a direct replacement for the money that was taken out of this contract. 

“Over the last ten years we’ve had to take an unbelievably large amount of money out of the council’s budget due to national Government cuts.  

“We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions about where we make those budget cuts. 

“We did not take this decision lightly […] but we have protected as much as we can of the services that we want to provide,” she said, adding the council had put £280,000 into the voluntary community sector in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.  

Cllr Lury added: “I’m completely happy to commit to [working together]. In the first instance we need to get together to talk about the immediate support that we might be able to provide in light of Covid-19.” 

The call-in was rejected by six to four – Cllr Humaira Ali, Cllr Salmon, and Cllr Al-Samerai voted to refer the decision back to the cabinet member.  

Labour Cllr Peter Babudu, who raised during the meeting that Covid-19 was having a disproportionate impact on the BAME community, also voted to refer the decision back.  

Cllr Ian Wingfield, Cllr Helen Dennis, Cllr Leanne Werner, Cllr Gavin Edwards, Cllr Jason Ochere, and Cllr Alice Macdonald voted to leave the decision as is.  

However, four recommendations were approved – although Cllr Ali asked for them in writing first – including reviewing the capacity of services in light of Covid-19, reviewing the budget process, working together on a longer-term approach to deal with the impact of Covid-19, and monitoring the impact of the cuts.