Andrew Lewer: Town owes a debt to unsung hero

There is a very sad change coming to Northampton and the town will not quite be the same, writes Andrew Lewer MP.

By Graham Tebbutt (edited by)
Thursday, 9th June 2022, 10:28 am
Updated Thursday, 9th June 2022, 10:34 am
Andrew Lewer MP with Julie Silver, who retires this week
Andrew Lewer MP with Julie Silver, who retires this week

It concerns a woman most of you have never heard of, yet her impact on Northampton and the county has been, quite frankly, enormous. Her name is Julie Silver and tomorrow (June 10), she retires as the Chief Executive Officer of Northamptonshire Community Law Service, based in Hazelwood Road.

It is a post she has held for 34 years and in that time she has taken it from a small volunteer-based organisation providing welfare benefits advice, to one of the largest independent providers of advice in the East Midlands, employing at its height over 50 staff, who provided a full spectrum of support from welfare benefits, debt, housing, immigration, family law, to fuel poverty and employment law advice.

In the 34 years Julie has been at the helm, Northamptonshire Community Law Service has advised over 200,000 people; managed £539,566,302 of client debt and assisted residents of Northamptonshire to claim £239,828,915 in benefit income.

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This is not down to luck, but a process of tirelessly building up a robust high performing organisation with a top-class team to deliver it. The old military adage applies here: “Amateurs talk about tactics; professionals talk about logistics and experts talk about personnel.”

Julie navigated the service through the process of being the first agency in Northampton to gain the Specialist Quality Mark, reflecting the highest standards of case and organisation management the Service became renowned for.

In 2000, this was the breakthrough moment when Julie spearheaded the inclusion of the Not-for-Profit sector into Legal Aid Franchises by successfully applying for Welfare Benefits and Debt contracts (later adding Housing, Immigration, Employment and Family Law). It was at this time that the Community Law Service first employed solicitors within the organisation.

I first met Julie at her offices fairly early in my now five years as MP for Northampton South. I remember leaving our meeting thinking what a formidable and engaged CEO she was, and our relationship has blossomed ever since.

In October 2018, she invited me to speak at her Community Law Service Conference and the launch of the three-year £1.1million Northamptonshire Energy Saving Service (NESS), funded by National Grid’s Warm Homes Fund, an initial to help combat fuel poverty.

The last time we worked together, in November 2021, was lobbying the Government to think again over changes to debt advice funding. Although, the Government was putting more money into the system, less of that money was going to face-to-face debt advisors, which we considered to be a mistake.

We managed to put a stay of execution on that issue, much of that down to Julie’s excellent briefings and advice.

I will miss her, and as Julie exits stage left to enjoy a well-earned retirement, she leaves behind a legacy of a very capable organisation full of well-trained, well-motivated staff to help people navigate through debt, benefit and energy issues in these difficult economic times.

An organisation, indeed, that my team and I work well with and use to try and get the very best service for constituents. She is a true unsung local hero and proof that alchemy does exist in Northampton at least, where our Silver turned into pure gold.