Welfare Rights Services in Leicester: The Unknown Saga Unfolds

On March 6, 2015, Sir Peter Soulsby signed-off on a controversial decision: “To approve proposals to achieve savings of £0.2m per year from a review of the in-house welfare rights advice service, as part of the Council’s spending review programme.” After much messing around, the Council are still in the process of trying to force these changes through. But you won’t have read about this cut in the local press, even though this decision represents the effective decimation of Leicester City Council’s in-house welfare rights services! As the Council points out, the latest department facing the axe is the Welfare Rights Service which…

“…provides free information and assistance to help people obtain their correct benefit entitlements including providing assistance to people who have been turned down for benefits and want to appeal.”

The Labour Council report which provided the unsubstantiated arguments to facilitate this attack on welfare services (which are rendered to Leicester’s most vulnerable residents) can be read in full here — it is actually quite short, so reading it doesn’t take long, “Welfare Advice Review – Decision report.” Matters like sense and compassion have long passed from Sir Peter’s mind. We are after-all talking about a City Mayor who recently proposed reducing Council Tax benefits for Leicester residents already living in poverty, but then changed his mind. Public outrage forced the Council to backtrack on this decision, leading the Leicester Mercury (November 23) to write:

“Council bosses have dropped two controversial plans that would have hit Leicester’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the pocket – for now.”

Returning to the current proposed cuts. The Council aims to reduce the budget of the Welfare Rights Service from an already meagre £427,700 a year to just £227,700. The aforementioned Council report which outlines these cuts boasts that this will occur “without reducing service delivery.” Moreover, it seems we should be thankful for this latest cut, as by halving the budget of Welfare Rights Services the Council will apparently be acting in the “best interests… of its citizens” to ensure they “are receiving all benefits to which they are entitled” (so the Council report says).

Ironically, the main argument put forward by Council officials for gutting the budget of Welfare Rights Services is that it will allow the work of highly trained and experienced paid members of staff to be replaced by already-overstretched volunteers. As the Council point out: “The current service provision is expensive due to the reliance upon employed, experienced officers to provide all levels of welfare advice…” So the Council suggest that service users “can be seen by someone less expensive, for example a CAB [Citizens’ Advice Bureau] volunteer.”

A key point here is that the Council do not envisage that the extra workload heaped upon volunteers working for Citizens’ Advice Bureau will require extra funding. The Council are categorical: “This will not require an increase in funding to CAB.”

Following Sir Peter’s disgusting initial decision to authorise this cut, the Overview Select Committee met (on March 26, 2015) to shed further light upon his proposed attack upon workers and the poor. In introducing this issue, Committee chair Councillor Mohammed Dawood (Wycliffe ward), drew additional attention to two further points of interest.

The first was that the advisors employed by the Welfare Rights Service “undertook significant background work for claimants.” The second point was that the “service currently found approximately £5 million in benefits for the city’s residents.” This not insignificant sum goes directly to some of Leicester’s most vulnerable residents, and does not come from Council revenues, but instead comes directly from the government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Former welfare rights worker Councillor Aqbany, then addressed the Committee, explaining that the work undertaken by the Welfare Rights Service “were often complex and the in-house service were best equipped to deal with these because of their expertise.” He added that other “advice providers were overburdened with work,” by which he was probably referring to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

With many of the current Welfare Rights Service employers being members of the union, Unison, union representative Gaynor Garner pointed out that her members’ were strongly opposed to the Council’s proposed cut. She pointed out how it was already “known that many benefits went unclaimed every year in the city.” This is precisely why it is totally counterproductive to cut money from welfare services, as the staff generate way more money for the city than the small cost represented by their salaries.

social-spending-cuts-cartoon

Other comments from people present at the Overview Select Committee meeting highlighted that once the proposed cuts were carried out “there would be virtually no workers” to deliver the Welfare Rights Service.

Likewise the obvious point was made that considering the Government’s escalating attacks on benefit claimants, our Labour “Council should be making more investment to help people access benefits, find work and receive the correct advice.” Another individual bolstered this statement by adding that as a direct result of the introduction of universal credit the loss of “qualified workers would leave the most vulnerable exposed, as demand for welfare advice services was likely to increase.”

Someone else proposed that as there had been “no consultation on the proposed changes to the services provided… no action should be taken before relevant groups had been consulted.” Councillor Sarah Russell (who is the Assistant Mayor responsible for Neighbourhood Services) then defended the proposed cuts by saying that a review was not necessary “as the services being offered were not changing.”

Given the opposition faced at the 2015 meeting, the proposed cuts were temporarily postponed — although now the issue is live again, and Sir Peter and Councillor Russell are trying to wield an axe to our city’s welfare services. Indeed, in their recent proposal for cutting £4 million from youth services they suggested that by the end of March 2017, Welfare Rights Services will no longer be providing advice from Children’s Centres. The loss of such regular service provision would be tragic, because as was noted at the 2015 Overview Select Committee meeting:

The most significant increase in enquiries [for benefit claims within the Welfare Rights Service] had been from Children’s Centres. It was assumed that this reflected child poverty and changes should not be made that disadvantaged children any further. The changes in service should not be made until there was clear evidence that the CAB could adequately deal with this part of the service, as cutting welfare advice services would not reduce child poverty.”

But these are not the only cuts facing the Welfare Rights Service, as a separate review of Adult Social Care provision also recommended cuts in welfare advice services! Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that Leicester is run not by the Tories but by a Labour Council. And for now at least we can be thankful for a small respite provided by the recent news that the current review of welfare rights services is being “terminated” because “the data underpinning the existing business case needed to revisited.” This is not to say that the Council is revising its plan to slash £200,000 from the welfare budget, it is just that they are not only spineless in their unwillingness to oppose Tory cuts but are incompetent to boot.

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