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A proposal with disastrous consequences for advice

 

Derek Mitchell on why the Home Office must think again on plans to levy registration fees to provide immigration advice

In this column Citizens Advice Scotland spokespeople often outline the exhausting demand our network is under.

Amid the fall out of the pandemic and still in the midst of a cost of living crisis, people need advice more than ever. More people are seeking advice, and they are often needing help with increasingly complex cases and turning up in a state of crisis.

Bluntly, CABs need more funding. That funding needs to be secure, flexible and long term.

So imagine my dismay when the Home Office launched a consultation proposing to charge Citizens Advice registration fees to provide immigration advice.

The proposal would apply to bodies from the non-fee charging sector who currently provide immigration advice – Citizens Advice has had a block exemption on this for years.

Instead, these new proposals would see individual advisors charged a registration fee as well as the organisations they provide advice for.

Looking at the broad figures the consultation suggests, this would lead to the Citizens Advice network in Scotland facing set up costs of around £300,000 to register our advisors and CABs, and ongoing costs in the region of £223,000 per year.

That would have absolutely disastrous consequences for a service already struggling to keep pace with demand.

It would also have a chilling effect on our ability to recruit and retain volunteer advisors, and potentially restrict people’s access to advice. Volunteer Scotland say that the percentage of adults in Scotland volunteering for an organisation or community group has dropped from 26% in 2019 to 22% in 2022, and CABs have faced challenges with volunteer recruitment and retention since the pandemic.

It is vitally important that people understand that the inadvertent impact of these fees wouldn’t be restricting people’s access to immigration advice in a CAB, it would be about restricting access to advice in a CAB entirely.

People rarely seek advice on just one issue – life isn’t that black and white. That’s why the CAB service is a generalist wraparound one, so when someone comes in with a problem in one area, an advisor can help them through all their issues rather than signposting them elsewhere.

A scenario where we face huge charges to register our advisors to give immigration advice risks our ability to deliver that wraparound service. Last year 12,743 pieces of immigration-related advice were given to 4,406 people by CABs in Scotland. These clients didn’t just get immigration advice – they got help with issues like housing, employment and energy as well. By restricting our ability to help these clients with immigration issues, it restricts our ability to help with everything.

And if you restrict our ability to help people with everything, they will fall through the cracks. Even if you don’t subscribe to our view that everyone deserves access to free advice to understand their rights regardless of their circumstances or background, you have to acknowledge the risk people not knowing their rights creates, and the potential costs it pushes onto the state in other ways.

Ultimately funding advice is a form of preventative spending. Good advice can reduce strain on the NHS, on our legal system and on our social services. Making it more difficult for us to deliver that advice to some of the most vulnerable communities in our country is a fool’s errand.

This consultation runs until 5 June. We have made our concerns about these proposals clear and we would urge the Home Office not to proceed with a decision that could have disastrous consequences for advice provision in Scotland and across the UK.

Derek Mitchell is chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland.

This column was first published in the Herald.

 

Comments

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Dominic
about 1 month ago

I recall some really innovative funding streams at SACAB

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ROB MCINTOSH
about 1 month ago

Would anybody care to argue that this is the supposed UK Government implementing a policy to ensure that immigration advice is only available to those that can pay, everybody else will have to accept whatever the Home Office decides to do or say (legally and illegally). The joys of racist and fascist 'little englanders'.