The Quiet Death of the Rights Movement

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The article below appears in the Spring 2008 issue (No, 44) of Green Socialist magazine (quarterly journal of the Alliance for Green Socialism). The author retains copyright but it may be reproduced and quoted as long as the author and Green Socialist magazine are given acknowledgement.

The Strangely Quiet Death of the Voluntary Advice Sector

Independent Advice Centres, from CABx to Law Centres and Disability Rights Projects to Housing Aid Centres, are to be shut down and their services taken over by new structures controlled by state QUANGOs. Steve Radford looks at how and why this is happening and, crucially, why no-one seems to care.

few weeks ago the BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme “You and Yours” broadcast a piece on the changes in Legal Aid funding and featured a Law Centre spokesperson asserting that the changes would make it harder for his organisation to offer free legal advice and representation for those not blessed with the means to pay for it from their own pockets. The new Legal Aid contracts and fees would threaten the economic viability of all services based on Legal Aid payments – so the Law Centre man claimed.
I listened to the programme with half an ear as I drove home. As a trustee of an independent Housing Advice Centre and former Secretary of a Law Centre myself I had some familiarity with the arguments over Legal Aid – but what I was waiting for was some mention of the fact that the government, through its Legal Services Commission (the QUANGO which commissions and pays for Legal Aid contracts and franchises) has embarked on a process which will see the closure of all Law Centres across England and Wales. I listened in vain as this fact was not mentioned. Indeed, I have not seen or heard this issue raised in any broadcast material discussing advice or legal affairs over the past year.
The voluntary advice sector in this country has a long history. CABx were formed during the Second World War to help deal with the trauma and disruption of total war as it affected the civilian population. This was not due to a sudden outbreak of liberal generosity by the government but a practical and economically effective means of maintaining order and morale during a time of genuine national emergency (for example, servicemen returning home on leave to find their families dispersed to temporary accommodation, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, needed help to be re-united with their loved ones and re-assured of their safety before they went back to fight the enemy).
After the war the rapid growth of the Welfare State, combined with the decline of deference to decisions made by official bureaucrats encouraged the development of CABx and other advice agencies. Throughout the sixties and seventies in particular the number of advice agencies grew as the complexities of modern Britain made more and more demands on people – and people in turn demanded more and more access to information about their legal rights and how to assert them.
In the nineties the provision of advice in all spheres became increasingly legalised and a system of quality-marks and franchised contracts was put in place by the Legal Aid Board to increase regulation of the advice sector. Many involved in voluntary advice agencies, myself included, worried about our increasing dependence on government controlled funding streams. We found ourselves forced to operate as legal businesses – solicitor’s offices, governed more by Law Society rules and the terms of a Legal Aid contract than by the principles and ethos of our trustees and our constitution. We worried about these developments, but we were providing desperately needed services to working-class people and if we wanted to continue offering this service we had no choice but to go down this road.
By 2007 we realised that the process of incorporation was not going to stop. The government had by now adopted a strategy under which the entire network of voluntary agencies offering specialist or legal advice (at least all those with any kind of public sector funding – which is all of them) was to be gradually incorporated into a network of Integrated Social Welfare Legal Services. These service providers – known as CLACS and CLANS (Community Legal Advice Centres in urban areas and Community Legal Advice Networks in more rural areas) were going to be rolled out by the Legal Services Commission and would effectively mop-up all existing independent advice agencies. All services were to be brought into a single structure, which would operate under a tightly drawn contract with the commissioning body – normally a joint panel appointed by the Legal Services Commission and the Local Authority (ie. a QUANGO). What is more, these single service providers were to be open to competitive tender, allowing profit-driven private sector bodies to bring their “expertise” to bear on the business of helping people fight for their rights against the state, big business, landlords, employers etc.
I have long argued for the voluntary sector to beware the dangers of state incorporation and the erosion of its independence. Some twenty years ago, as a Senior Community Relations Officer in Yorkshire, I vigorously opposed the abolition of independent Community Relations Councils and their replacement (by the then Tory government and its appointees on the Commission for Racial Equality) with Approved Race Equality Councils.
Defence of the CRCs was not helped by the fact that so many of them were badly managed, often corrupt and seen as largely ineffective, but this did not alter the basic principles involved (and their replacements have not been much better). However, I was shocked then by the apparent inability of most people involved in Race Equality work to grasp the principled argument that giving a state appointed QUANGO control over theoretically independent local voluntary organisations working for racial equality was a dangerous and retrograde step. Indeed it became clear to me that many people involved in this field (including influential figures in the Labour Party) had not bothered to read the small print of the so-called “New Partnership for Racial Equality”.
Some years later, as secretary of a West Yorkshire Law Centre Management Committee, I argued that the logical extension of the Contract Culture being imposed on voluntary organisations was that firms of private solicitors would eventually compete with voluntary Law Centre Management Committees for contracts to run Legal Advice Services (replacing Law Centres) under a franchise from the Local Authority and the Legal Aid Board. This notion was dismissed at the time by most of my colleagues as fanciful and alarmist conjecture, but this is precisely what is happening now.
If voluntary advice agencies are really under threat of extinction, where, you might ask, is the vocal campaign from the articulate and well-connected lobby-groups who represent this sector? The National Association of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux (now branded as Citizens’ Advice), the Federation of Independent Advice Centres (now branded as AdviceUK), and the Advice Services Alliance have all been relatively quiet on this issue. Perhaps the thinking is that if they keep their heads down then they will be allowed to survive in some reduced form – a forlorn hope in my view.
Even the normally vocal Law Centres Federation, a body so politically right-on that it once refused to remove a Law Centre from membership, even though they refused to pay any membership fees, on the basis that this Law Centre (in Toxteth) was “black-led”, has been relatively quiet. This despite the fact that the march of the CLACS will, if not stopped, wipe out every Law Centre in England and Wales, and the Law Centres Federation will fade into extinction along with them.
What about the trade unions then? Are they not worried about their members’ wages and conditions, even if they don’t care about the principles involved? There is a long and complex answer to this question, but the shorter version is that none of the unions who claim to organise throughout the Voluntary Sector are very serious about it. The major union is probably Unite/TGWU (although it is hard to be certain as they lie about their membership) but their record of organising and servicing members here is so atrocious that some organisations whose Management Committees have actually recognised the TGWU and invited employees to join have later discovered that the union hasn’t bothered to recruit their staff and that they have no TGWU members on their payroll. As a director of FIAC/AdviceUK I once felt obliged to suggest that we should de-recognise the TGWU because they had not bothered to recruit and I objected to dealing with a union which (through their own culpable neglect) didn’t actually represent any of our staff.
Given the unwillingness of the unions to commit resources to organising such a highly dispersed workforce it is unsurprising that they have had little or nothing to say about CLACs until their members are on the point of being made redundant or having their wages cut, by which time it is too late.
So, apart from giving me the opportunity to say “I told you so”, what is the practical effect of this state takeover of the independent advice sector? Well, it is, as usual with this kind of change, not immediately clear how the “QUANGOisation” (and often outright privatisation) of advice services will effect those who use the services.
The agencies managing these services under contract may still be voluntary bodies (eg. consortia of CABx and other advice agencies) or they may be private sector bodies operating in commercial partnership with firms of solicitors. In either case they will simply be contractors bound by the same, tightly drawn service specifications and will have little or no ability to carry out work which is not sanctioned and paid for by the QUANGO who commissioned them. It is a fair bet to say that campaigning activities will not feature in their list of priorities (eg. campaigns to defend Council Housing and dissuade the government from privatising even more social housing stock which were supported by many voluntary Housing Aid Centres). After all, why should a private company care about decent social housing for working people – especially if they make a profit out of advising people with housing problems?
Of course, the staff (solicitors, legal advisers and caseworkers) in these state commissioned and controlled advice providers may be very competent. There is no reason to doubt their integrity in pursuing the best interests of their clients (although access to these services will be increasingly means-tested) – but one of the ways employers will try to cut costs (and maximise profits) will be to try and depress wages and conditions. Voluntary organisations who want to compete with the private sector for contracts to run these services will therefore try to trim their own wage bills in a cut-throat environment where wages are the major outlay. This is the underlying cause of the current dispute in the Shelter Housing Aid Centres – where the TGWU (having failed to either campaign against the QUANGO takeover or to recruit and properly service members, despite being recognised by Shelter) now finds its minority membership under threat of wage cuts.
Of course if existing voluntary advice agencies don’t tender for the contracts, or if they do but are unsuccessful, as most of them have been so far, then they will have to make their staff redundant anyway (or try and get the successful bidder to employ them) as they will lose all their public funding. However, the major changes will be in the ethos and the wider social, community and political activities of the voluntary advice sector. In a largely privatised, commercially-driven, contract-controlled sector there will no room (and little will) for public awareness or general educational campaigns on anything that the state (national or local) might find embarrassing or inconvenient. No campaigns by advice agencies over the ill-treatment of Asylum Seekers, or the injustice and unfairness of our immigration laws, or the level of benefits, or the rights of tenants, or employment rights, etc.
On the Management Committee of the Housing Advice Centre on which I sit it is clearly understood by all members that our ultimate goal is to render our organisation redundant because, quite apart from offering advice and representation, we also have the wider social objective of seeking policy changes to make affordable and decent housing available for all. Call me cynical if you like, but I rather doubt that any private sector contractor taking over our advice services would share this enthusiasm to put themselves out of business.
The demise of independent advice agencies is a major step in the gradual neutralisation of the independent Voluntary and Community Organisations sector. Along with the imposition of the Contact Culture in all areas of voluntary sector service provision (see “Privatisation and the Voluntary Sector” – GS No. 34, Winter 2005/6) it marks a significant reduction in the resources available to help community-based campaign groups to challenge authority and hold those in office to some kind of accountability. Direct comparisons with the rapid state incorporation of all aspects of autonomous civil society which occurred in fascist Italy and Germany in the nineteen-twenties and thirties would be a gross over-dramatisation. However, there is no doubt that it is state incorporation and that the scope for autonomous community-based voluntary groups to operate effectively in the UK is being eroded.
The docile compliance of the Voluntary Advice Sector itself; the lazy ineptitude and organisational feebleness of the unions; and the total indifference of the major political parties to this issue, all combine to make it hard to organise an effective campaign to stop the process at this late date. It is just possible that the process of QUANGOisation will simply be an administrative and organisational disaster and therefore not be pursued through to the end. However, as those who will suffer from a decline in standards of service are often the weakest, poorest and most inaudible sections of society, it will take a considerable and very public (and costly) degree of failure to stop the process.
Unless the independent advice sector itself wakes up and fights for its existence then another voice of independent, compassionate, humane and broadly progressive civil society will probably be silenced.
© Steve Radford (2008)
Steve Radford is Vice-Chairman of a Housing Aid Centre in Yorkshire and the former Secretary of the TGWU Yorkshire Voluntary Sector Staffs Branch.

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