The present and future of advice and support for migrants in London
Last week the Ministry of Justice announced that it would be delaying by six months its plans to reform the legal aid scheme. This is welcome news and hopefully in the interim period government will look at alternative ways of making savings in its budget without compromising access to justice for those most in need of it.
We have warned that some of the proposals would have disastrous consequences for migrant communities and for the voluntary and community sector organisations supporting them. As it is at the moment, managing in a financially sustainable way immigration advice contracts funded by the legal aid scheme is extremely difficult. Many private sector providers have withdrawn from this area of advice while the two largest voluntary sector providers went into administrator within a year of each other leaving tens of thousands of cases in limbo and a shortage of provision in many areas.
However, advice and support for migrants is facing pressure from other direction as well. Cuts to local authority third sector grant budgets have had a large impact on voluntary and community sector organisations, many of which provide these types of services. Cuts have varied between different local authorities with some ring fencing their budgets for third sector projects while others have passed on the cuts to this area. Even before the funding cuts, shifts from grant funding to commissioning services by the public sector had already brought big challenges for smaller organisations which often lacked the size and capacity to bid for the available contracts.
Specific funding for advice and support to asylum seekers and refugees has also been drastically cut forcing large organisations such as the Refugee Council to downsize and reorganise a lot of its advice provision.
Together, all these shifts present a very uncertain picture in terms of the advice and support that migrants have access to in London. Many organisations working with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are having to restructure their work at the same time that many of the services with which they partner or have referrals agreements are also undergoing significant change.
Earlier this year, the Migrants Rights Network sought to make a rapid assessment of the effect of these shifts on the provision of advice and support to migrants in different areas of London. We had reports from some organisations that in some areas of the capital provision was very scarce while in other areas it seemed more stable. Similarly, other organisations were reporting that people were travelling long distances to get advice or support.
To get a better picture of the situation we produced a briefing on the provision of advice and support for migrants in London, gathering information in two ways. First, we reviewed the available reports on the impact of funding cuts and evaluated their implications for migrants and refugees. Second, we carried out interviews with key organisations in different areas of London to get a sense of how the provision of advice and support had changed in their area in the last year. This included immigration advice and advice on other issues such as housing, employment and welfare which migrants could access. It also included second tier support for migrant community organisations.
We found a rapidly evolving landscape of provision that nevertheless showed significant variation from one area of the capital to the other. In some areas of London funding cuts and reorganisation of services seem to be having an impact with a noticeable reduction in provision. In other areas there is a sense that things are holding steady but that further cuts such as those anticipated in the legal aid proposals could seriously affect provision. In yet other areas those people we spoke to felt that services were better protected, especially where local authorities had ring fenced funding for voluntary sector services.
The overall picture was one of evolution where the full impact of the current cuts is still filtering down and where further shifts could bring significant changes. Despite this evolving picture some patterns did emerge. These include:
- Some areas of London are better served in terms of provision of advice and support for migrants than others.
- In general, inner areas are better served. Especially the outer west and south present significant gaps.
- Some of the larger providers have scaled back outreach work which has a big effect on some outer areas.
- The role of local authorities in protecting services through ring fencing of funds for third sector providers is a key factor in the stability of advice.
- Legal aid changes could have a devastating effect, especially in areas where most provision relies on community law centres and CABs.
The full extent of the effects of funding cuts on advice provision and support for migrants in London remains to be seen and we will continue to monitor changes. However, two factors will play a crucial role in future developments: whether local authorities can be convinced of the importance of protecting existing services and whether the legal aid reforms are implemented in full and any measures that may be taken to mitigate their impact.
We would welcome feedback on how advice and other services for migrants have been affected in your areas: have services closed down? has there been a change in demand for advice? has your local authority taken action to protect services?