A briefing note from Citizens Advice Scotland expresses concern about the strategy to make benefits ‘digital by default’ – and it notes that this creates more demand for advice services. At the same time as this is going on, the government is taking steps to reduce the availability of advice services. The government has attempted to remove legal aid from first-tier appeals on benefits (a move previously rejected in the House of Lords), and now a further move has been made to cut legal aid for welfare rights advice. This is from a speech by Lord Bach in the House of Lords on Wednesday:
something very big is missing that was not missing when the 1999 decisions and appeals regulations were operated in practice. It is like the elephant in the room; we do not discuss it, but it is there. Has the Minister spotted it? Have his officials spotted it? Has the Secretary of State spotted what I am talking about? … after 1 April, for those who do not have the means to pay- the vast majority, I would suggest, including many disabled people – where will they get the legal advice they need? … Who will advise them on the intricacies of the social security system?
Legal aid has been important for law centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and solicitors providing welfare rights. That means that the existing system of advice and support, which is already patchy enough, will have more large holes blown in it – at just the time when it will be most needed.
There is however a glimmer of hope. The Universal Credit Local Services Support Framework, published last week, has some positive ideas for local delivery partnerships. On page 12, there is the suggestion that local agencies can help prepare and verify a claim, encouragement for one-stop services and links with social housing providers. This might help people with online claims and flag up serious problems.The DWP is talking about negotiating payments for specific forms of local support. That could in principle lead to something more like the French system, where local agencies receive fees for completing processes that would otherwise have to be done by the benefits agency.