Government proposals to remove funding from organisations that provide expert legal support for discrimination cases will have a “catastrophic” impact on disabled people, experts have warned.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) has quietly published its response to a consultation on plans for a new equality advisory and support service.
In its response, GEO confirmed its plans to replace the helpline currently run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) with a new national service providing information, advice and support to victims of discrimination, although it admitted that only “a minority” of those responding to the consultation had agreed with its plan.
But it also announced that it would not replace millions of pounds in grants currently provided by the EHRC to legal organisations across the country, with “future central government funding for legal advice on discrimination cases” now to be provided “solely through legal aid”. Again, only a minority of respondents agreed with the decision.
Disability Law Service (DLS), which is led by disabled people, said the proposals would mean a “drastic” cut in its funding.
It receives £50,000 a year from the EHRC, which allows it to take on about 50 complex discrimination cases every year.
That funding – about 10 per cent of its annual revenue – will end in March 2012, and will not now be replaced, which could mean DLS having to make a member of staff redundant.
Although it will still be able to secure legal aid funding for discrimination cases, this only pays a fixed sum of £200 for most employment and consumer cases, many of which are complex and can take months of expert legal work to prepare.
Wonta Ansah-Twum, DLS’s head of disability discrimination and employment, said: “We needed the funding from the EHRC grant to support the work we do.
“It is going to have a devastating impact on our service-users. Disabled people are going to be marginalised. They will not have anywhere to turn if services like ours do not continue. It is appalling.”
She also said that the government’s new helpline would simply be a “generalised” service that would lack the specialist knowledge to help disabled people with advice on discrimination.
She said: “That is just unacceptable. They have failed to take into account the fact that discrimination cases are complex and need specialist caseworkers to deal with them. The government has completely ignored the concerns we raised.”
DLS is already facing the threat of losing grant funding from London Councils, which represents London’s 33 local authorities.
London Councils was forced by the high court earlier this year to reconsider plans to slash its grants programme, and is due to announce the results of this rethink next month.
Ansah-Twum said: “If we do not get a replacement for the EHRC and London Councils funding, I don’t know how we will survive in a year’s time. It is putting the organisation at risk.”
A GEO spokesman said: “The government has not been convinced by the consultation responses that discrimination cases uniquely merit central government funding in addition to that which is available through civil legal aid.”
He added: “The government has come forward with a new service which will be cheaper to run than the EHRC helpline.”
He said the government was “confident” that the new helpline would ensure that information, advice and support on discrimination would be “available to everybody in a fair and accessible way”.
An EHRC spokeswoman said: “The GEO has made the decision to end our funding so any questions about future funding need to be put to the GEO.”
She also declined to comment on the government’s proposal for a new helpline.