20/03/2012 – Keeping a promise
There's been much excited chatter over the past few days about George Osborne's 2012 Budget speech tomorrow. The headline grabber has been proposals to reduce the 50% top rate of tax, down to 45% in 2013 and then a further fall to 40% from 2014. Polls suggest that this move is unpopular with the public and it certainly seems to me to undermine the "we're all in it together" mantra that has been previously used to justify tough spending decisions.
However, my mind is more concerned with another matter that I hope we hear some further details about. At the NCVO annual conference earlier on this month, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, surprised delegates with an announcement that additional funding would be given to the not-for-profit advice sector. He said that this would be extra money to the recent Transition funds, which were one-off pots of money, and would be coming in during the current spending period.
I'm hoping that the Coalition Government is true to its word and has indeed developed a credible, affordable and sustainable funding strategy for not-for-profit advice services. With a combination of funding cuts happening at local, regional and national levels, we've already seen some vital services being lost, including Law for All in Ealing, East Finchley Advice Service, and Refugee and Migrant Justice just 3 that spring to mind.
At a time of extreme economic austerity, with high unemployment figures and the impending implementation of wide-ranging welfare reforms, there has never been a more pressing need for citizens to be given free legal advice and information when they encounter social problems. The arguments are well rehearsed that show how spending money on social welfare advice such as welfare benefits, debt and housing, enables other public money to be saved "downstream".
Yet, the Legal Aid Bill currently passing through the House of Lords proposes to remove or reduce much currently funded advice provision. If ever there was a situation to coin the phrase "the wrong cuts at the wrong time", then now is it. The Government has been defeated on votes on a number of amendments, but going on the experience of the recent Welfare Reform Act 2012, these amendments will be swiftly overturned when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. The impact on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people will be immense, as not-for-profit advice services find they cannot continue delivering services. Citizens Advice estimate that up to half their current outlets could be forced to close.
So, once all the noise and arguing about the top rate of tax has died down, I'll be looking for the fine detail on this issue far more keenly. The future of the sector depends on the Government properly addressing this issue, beyond one-off pots of money which don't assist the long-term viability of the advice sector. Let's hope that George and company deliver the goods as promised,.
Posted by Terry Stokes