COMMUNITY-BASED free legal, debt, money and welfare rights services have taken quite a knock over the last few years.

In Glasgow, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local council decided in August 2020 to wipe out almost half the provision of free advice and representation in the city.

This was met with widespread derision and the subsequent compromise was to reduce council funding by around one third.

The Improvement Service (IS) is the national local government organisation in Scotland that provides research, analysis and improvement strategies.

It recorded a drop in the demand for debt advice in 2020/21 due to the impact of furlough, temporary uplifts to social security and creditor forbearance during the first year of the pandemic.

Demand for debt advice rose by a quarter in 2021/22. Given the ongoing cost of living crisis, I have no doubt we’ll record much higher demand in 2022/23. As I wrote last week, I think we’ve been postponing and storing up many complex household debt cases that will crystallise later this year.

The IS publish its data analysis annually – in a Common Advice Performance Management Reporting Framework report. This report confirms that three-quarters of all clients seeking free advice in Scotland had a household income below £15,000.

For every £1 invested in advice – through council services or local community-based charitable services funded by local authorities – there was a £11 financial gain for clients.

In 2021/22, face-to-face client contact remained low at 12% of all contacts. There’s a serious worry many vulnerable people are unable to access digital advice channels – telephone, mobile devices or computers – and are losing out.

It’s important to appreciate that helping people from a telephone call centre doesn’t quite work for those with complex or multiple advice needs or mental health problems.

Accordingly, the allocation of £1.2 million of additional funding for community-based advice providers by the Scottish Government in 2021 was a game-changing development.

It enabled local law centres, CABx, council and independent money advice services to increase their capacity for free debt advice.

This funding was administered by the Scottish Legal Aid Board under the “Debt Advice Journey Programme” and came from the debt levy on UK financial firms paid to the Scottish Government. In 2022/23 over £6.5m of the debt levy was allocated to Scotland.

Most of this money goes to national UK or Scottish providers of remote advice or educational services.

In 2022/23, Stepchange received over £1.2m, Citizens Advice Scotland over £1.5m, Advice Direct Scotland £550,000, Christians Against Poverty £245,227 and Money Advice Scotland almost half a million pounds.

Last week the Debt Advice Journey funding to community-based advice services was terminated. The IS had been tasked to publish an evaluation of these services in January this year but so far that has yet to materialise.

It seemed very odd to pull £1.2m per annum from local advice services without any particular explanation for why this funding was better spent elsewhere, so I asked some questions under freedom of information law.

I received a response from the Scottish Government’s Tackling Child Poverty and Social Justice Directorate on March 22.

I asked which organisations in Scotland had been allocated debt levy funding for 2023/24. The Scottish Government said: “No organisation has been granted debt advice levy funding for 2023/24 at the time of writing. The responsibility for the allocation of the Debt Advice Levy sits with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government’s portfolio.

“A range of organisations including those that received funding from the Debt Levy in 2022/23 were invited to submit proposals for funding in 2023/24. Officials met with one organisation who were invited to submit a proposal to discuss this.”

I don’t know anyone invited to submit proposals for funding and there was no advertised or public process as far as I’m aware.

Where’s the money going? Upon what basis will it be allocated?

We know from the IS that community-based services provide excellent value for money but where is the transparency in this decision-making?

Some of the local agencies to lose in Glasgow are in Greater Pollok/Govan, Southside Central and the East End. No equality impact assessments were carried out as the Scottish Government says the funding was time limited.

As for the IS evaluation report: “Scottish Ministers have not seen this report as it is still in draft format, therefore they have not requested any changes. The final report is due to be published by the Improvement Service on its website within the next few weeks.”

Is this any way to operate openly, fairly and transparently? Is it any way to treat community-based providers of essential free advice and legal representation?