It won’t come as a surprise, but Greenwich Council’s cabinet voted tonight to uphold its decision to withdraw funding from Greenwich Community Law Centre on Trafalgar Road.
The decision was “called in” for review by Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury, who voiced fears that the loss of the centre would leave the west of the borough with “little or no cover” for legal help, and that proposals for replacement services were short on detail.
Greenwich has decided to change the way it funds legal advice services, dividing up each area of welfare law into separate contracts that agencies can bid for. In the past, agencies had effectively acted as a consortium, which the council says costs too much money. GCLC won none of the contracts, and will lose its funding from November.
Barry Mills, who has worked at the centre for 21 years, told the cabinet that the centre is the only agency in the borough which provides free advice for all areas of welfare law, and is still getting referrals from the organisations that are supposed to be replacing it.
The centre’s work is complex, and so are the arguments surrounding this issue. But one particular aspect – immigration law – stood out. GCLC is the only agency in the borough with staff qualified to offer advice on immigration – it’s illegal to do so otherwise. But, despite having four staff who have passed the tests, it still lost out to Plumstead Community Law Centre, which currently has no such staff.
“No reasoning has been provided for this, nor explanation, and it is extremely surprising as the centre is the only provider of free immigration advice in the whole borough, and we have 137 open cases,” he said.
“We have been running the entire workload of immigration advice in this borough for at least a year now as the previous Plumstead worker was no accredited and did very basic advice only.
“Given the council’s commitment and agenda around equality and diversity, we believe it should be reconsidered in any event as it is woefully inadequate given that immigration clients are among the most vulnerable in the community, and in our experience often exploited by unscrupulous private practioners.”
He also added that losing the centre’s base on Trafalgar Road would leave clients without a familiar place to go – weekly “outreach” work was “rarely successful” while some clients were “not mobile, with some fearful of using public transport”.
Local mental health experts are among those who have spoken up for the centre.
“We are rooted in the local community and cannot be replaced by outreach and e-mails,” he said.
GCLC won more money in tribunal awards, welfare benefits in compensation than the grant allocated to it by the council, Mr Mills explained – raising at least £345,000 last year.
“Many successes are unquantifiable,” he continued. “Stopping deportations, getting repairs done, keeping families together, stopping deportations.
“All of these things result in harmonious living and assist in social cohesion.”
But Greenwich Council’s project director Mark Baigent – in evidence barely audible thanks to the council’s shonky sound system – insisted that a “consortium approach” to providing legal help had not worked, and it had been decided to provide a “centre of excellence in each field”.
Deputy council leader Peter Brooks said the decision was “an officer’s recommendation which we thought was the right decision to make”.
“We have to make a decision, times are hard,” he added.
Council leader Chris Roberts said legal services had acted as a “cartel” before, artificially inflating costs.
“In this current climate, moving to one provider in each [legal] area is more cost effective. The council has been doing it this way, and we expect it of the voluntary sector too. It was inevitable that somebody would not succeed.”
Centre management will meet on Friday to decide their next steps – if there are any next steps to take. But their supporters are furious, and cite what they say are numerous contradictions in the council’s arguments.
Indeed, the centre and the council – which has long wanted to centralise advice services – seem so far apart, it’s hard to imagine them ever being reconciled.
Conspiracy theorists might like to look at the centre’s offices themselves – a tidy corner shop on Trafalgar Road, which looks from the outside to be in good nick… and owned by Greenwich Council. The loss to people in the Greenwich area looks very much like a potential council accountant’s gain.