How the Central England Law Centre collaborates with partners

Looking at how the Central England Law Centre collaborated with partners to create an immigration advice strategy for Birmingham.

Organisation Profile

How do organisations in Birmingham work together on ending destitution and increasing access to justice? 

The Birmingham Destitution Steering Group was started over 20 years ago to coordinate services and try influence change for people affected by enforced destitution. 

At one point we were down to 3 members. When a key member left their organisation, it left a big gap but we decided to continue the group and try to reinvigorate membership. This helped keep things fluid in response to changing problems, rather than staying static and doing the same thing.

The current iteration of the working group involves 12-15 organisations that meet anywhere from 6 weeks to weekly during the COVID-19 crisis. Meetings are chaired by Dave from ASIRT. The group gets involved in coordinating service provision and policy work, putting our name behind local efforts with Asylum Matters. The City of Sanctuary movement has also been really influential too. 

What was the purpose of the Immigration Advice Strategy?

When Legal Aid was decimated in 2013, the Government put money into the Lottery for a transition fund. We received funding and the Destitution Steering Group used some of this to create an Immigration Advice Strategy for Birmingham. The strategy describes the needs around destitution and the picture of what services look like. We put the two together to demonstrate how big the gap was. It helped us explain some of the really complicated issues and interdependencies between immigration and homelessness, poverty, and health. 

The strategy meant we had a clear and consistent message that we were giving to all relevant stakeholders. Normally the size of the city mitigates against sharing of good practice - I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been in where I had to introduce one local authority officer to another. This was a strategy for the whole city and we worked together to make sure everyone knew about it. 

What impact did it have?

It helped us to be taken a bit more seriously. We are now in a position where the local authority wants to work with us. We showed the council that this is a big piece of work requiring oversight, planning and coordination through a commissioning officer. There’s now a department working on migration - Birmingham City Council are taking the issues seriously now. 

The strategy unlocked funding that has been transformative for the voluntary sector including the Law Centre. It's difficult to set up a model for a Legal Aid funded organisation because there’s so much that Legal Aid can’t pay for. It takes a lot of work and effort to get someone’s case to a stage where you understand what's needed. The funding we receive pays for that unpaid legal work, which is the first step to moving cases forwards. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, working collaboratively has meant we have been able to step in and meet the needs of people with NRPF who have been accommodated by the local authority under the government’s coronavirus ‘all in’ policy. Having previously been successful in reframing this issue as ‘migrant homelessness’, the local authority has been better able to understand and better placed to decide who has responsibility for it. That has helped the council to work in partnership with the voluntary sector to design services aimed at resolving the complex legal problems central to the needs of this client group.

We heard this week that more funding is coming through West Midlands Combined Authority. It’s now recognised that there is a need for immigration advice to find sustainable routes out of homelessness and poverty.  

What practical advice would you give to others looking to work collaboratively to improve access to justice?

Having a clear and easily explainable strategy really does make a difference, and absolutely helped us to get our message to the right people. There are people who are sufficiently influential to say the work should be funded as they set the agenda. 

Utilise existing networks, meetings and forums for communication. It takes a lot of time and there isn’t a particular resource you get for doing this, so you’re reliant on the cast of characters that populate organisations in your area. You have to make the most of that, communicate and keep talking to each other. Over time, working with the same group of people, you learn how to get better and what to do differently next time.

People who make decisions on funding don’t need to know the minute details, such as what scheme works in what way. They just need to understand and visualise the impact. You have to stop yourself going into the granular detail of problems that people with a wider remit don’t understand. If you have something diagrammatic then people can refer back to it in meetings, which helps people's understanding and informs action.