Two reports from the National Audit Office last week confirmed our worst fears.
First the NAO investigation into the Impact of Funding Reductions on Local Authorities warned that one in six councils are at risk of financial failure within the next five years and that core services like education and social care are endangered, particularly in the local authorities that are most dependant on government grants. Those authorities are also, of course, the ones that serve the most deprived communities.
As many English authorities are now, once again, budgeting for severe cuts for the fourth year in succession, the findings of the NAO were virtually inevitable. The next three years are unlikely to be better.
Our report “The Deciding Time” was published two years ago and painted “an urgent picture of escalating needs and diminishing resources”. Even then our findings were hardly a revelation. Most organisations of any size can identify some waste, some duplication, some level of management that might be eliminated with minimal damage to the front line but all that was lanced in years one and two. Now the leanest councils are cutting into the meat of the service and the cuts are getting deeper.
We pointed out then that “as funds have been cut over the last year acute services have been prioritised at the expense of earlier action. More problems have become more difficult when they might have been prevented entirely.” “These trajectories” we suggested “are unsustainable but they are not inevitable”. We argued that effective early action is a “need reduction strategy” reducing future liabilities, promoting growth and above all improving lives.
Future Generations Bill
Of course the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – but the second best time is now and even in the very difficult position in which many authorities find themselves its not too late to start acting earlier:
In Wales last week I met with government officials who are working on the Future Generations Bill. The idea of imposing a duty on public agencies to think about the longer term was a twinkle in our eyes at the start of the Early Action Task Force three years ago but is likely to receive Royal assent in Wales next April. Later on in the day I met Jenny O’Hara Jakeway whose work with the Glyncoch Community Regeneration project shows just what this approach might mean on the ground: Their co-designed ‘safer communities strategy’ saw crime go from the highest in the area to zero and has remained the lowest in the area ever since. They have co-designed a three-year education and the alleviation of poverty strategy, and a co-produced a healthy communities strategy all focused on a thorough understanding of the needs and assets in their community and on acting early.
It can be done. More than ever now, it must be done, without or without a statutory duty.
Legal Aid Funding
The second NAO report “Implementing reforms to civil legal aid” was not unrelated. Regular readers of this blog will know that the abolition of legal aid for most social law has had a devastating impact on Community Links advice services and on similar provision in other areas. We argued at the time that the “reforms” would fail on their own terms. Quite apart from running a coach and horses through the hallowed principle of equal access to the law they would be very likely to, in the longer term, increase the burden on the public purse not reduce it.
Last weeks report found that the Ministry of Justice “did not estimate the scale of the wider costs of the reforms – even those that it would have to bear – because it did not have a good understanding of how people would respond to the changes or what costs may arise.”
In consequence, for instance, “In the year following the changes, there has been a 30% increase in the number of family court cases in which neither party has legal representation. This is likely to create extra costs for the Ministry and wider government, with the NAO estimating additional cost to HM Courts & Tribunals Service of at least £3 million a year, together with direct costs to the Ministry of approximately £400,000. There may also be costs to the wider public sector if people whose problems could have been resolved by legal aid-funded advice suffer adverse consequences to their health and wellbeing as a result of no longer having access to legal aid”
The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, concluded that the “Ministry’s implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.” The kind of work that Legal Aid paid for at Community Links wasn’t expensive barrister fees or long running trails. Most often it was about avoiding the court system not paying for it, about preventing evictions, resolving debts, untangling disputes before the crisis not afterwards. It was about early action and ultimately it saved money
When the legal aid legislation was debated in parliament the minister Lord McNally said “…we will not devote limited public funds to less important cases on the basis that they could lead to more serious consequences” Now we can look at the impact on communities like ours in east London, we can read about the impossibly difficult choices facing local authorities across the land, we can glimpse the potential of an alternative, early action approach in communities like Glyncoch and we can see that this wasn’t only an absurd thing to say, it was a staggering dereliction of duty.
- Image: Thomas Ashley: Flickr