Realistic Advice Strategy for Covid 19 Required

Realistic Advice Strategy for Covid 19 Required

Covid 19 has exploded like a hand grenade in every home and workplace across our Society.

No-one feels safe. Any complacency we had only weeks ago is now gone.

We are now all facing a real, tangible threat to our health and well-being and that of our friends and loved ones.

Two Contagions

However, there are two contagions ripping through our communities at the moment.

First, there is the Covid 19 contagion, which is a serious threat to public health, the likes of which has never been seen since 1918. It will push our National Health Service to breaking point and every day we see health sector workers take the type of life threatening risks that they never signed up for: of going to work and not coming home.

Despite that, our Doctors, Nurses, Auxiliaries, Porters and Cleaners are on the front line, daily risking everything, including not being able to return to see their own children and families, so ours can be safe   There can be no question, that after this, we will all be indebted to them.

However, there is also a second contagion ripping through our Society, the contagion of financial failure and that threatens to be deeper and more enduring than the financial crisis that we witnessed in 2008.

Within weeks of the lock down millions have already been affected, with almost one million having to claim Universal Credit.

As staggering as these figure are, they don’t take into account those working poor that were already claiming it and because of falling income, will now see their claims rise. It doesn’t take into consideration those that are now eligible to claim, but through a lack of familiarity with the benefit system, have still not done so; or those only claiming contribution based Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance or Statutory Sick Pay.  Nor does it take account of the hundreds of thousands that will have to claim it in the weeks and months ahead.

Hopes that in three months time, the lock down will be lifted and gradually we will all return to some form of normality and these people will return to paying their mortgages and credit cards and loans, are as unrealistic and complacent as were our attitude to Covid 19 two weeks ago.

This will not happen, despite the payment breaks (where interest and charges are still being applied), despite the standing down of Sheriff Officers and debt collectors, despite the amnesty on evictions, despite the furlough payments of 80% of employees wages and the earnings of the self-employed, which won’t even arrive to June.

A New Strategy for Helping People will be Necessary

How long we will be required to address this second crisis, the financial crisis, will have to counted in years, not months. 

This will be necessary for a  number of reasons.

First there is the scale of the problem: it will be huge and complex and the advice sector in terms of money advice simply just doesn’t have the capacity to tackle that problem.

This was the case before this crisis with the Improvement Service reporting that local authority funding for free money advice had been cut by over 45% since 2014; and the Money Advice Service (the predecessor to the Money and Pension Service) reporting that Scotland was already 50% under capacity before this crisis even began.

What that percentage will be after this crisis is anyone’s guess.

Problem Debt Route Map Without Direction

Second, Scotland doesn’t have any strategy for dealing with Problem debt.

In January 2019, money that is raised by the Financial Conduct Authority from banks to fund the free money advice sector, The Debt Advice Levy, was devolved to the Scottish Government. 

A Tackling Problem Debt Working Group was established to come up with a Debt Advice Route Map.  The problem was, as I have previously wrote about (Route Map Without Direction) the subsequent Route Map that was produced, lacked any direction, because I suspect, as is common and understandable in a sector where funding is scarce, many of those who sat on the Group approached it with the attitude of what was in it for their respective organisations, rather that what was strategically best for  Scotland as a whole.

This was evidenced only months ago, when a decision was taken to just  renew all funding grants, most of which had been awarded prior to the funding being devolved.

A Divided Sector

Thirdly, if I was to be honest, as a Sector, the money advice sector don’t work well together. I say this as one of the few advisers who has worked for the public sector, the third sector and the private sector. 

The Third Sector don’t trust the Public Sector to give them any funding; the Public Sector fear the continued encroachment by the Third Sector, staffed by lower paid advisers and unpaid volunteers, who are often viewed as a cheaper option by funders; and neither trust the Private Sector, despite the fact they provide access to more formal debt solutions than the other two together. If any evidence is required of this, one only needs to look at the recent evidence gathering sessions by the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish Parliament in relation to Protected Trust Deeds. That descended into nothing more than private sector bashing eventually.

This is not to say that rivalry exists between front line advisers across the three sectors. The truth is, there is actually a strong level of solidarity between front line advisers, regardless of the sector they work in, as they are all doing the same job and face the same challenges.

The problem is, however, although it is true there is no shortage of work for all, there is a lack of funding, which doesn’t cultivate joined up working at a higher level in all sectors.

Scottish Government’s Response is Not Joined up

This lack of strategy will now be a problem, as will this lack of joined up working.

Quite simply if many of the protections that we have seen rushed in over the last few weeks are then rolled back over the next 3-6 months, the demand for free advice will overwhelm  the free money advice sector in Scotland.

There is clearly a lack of understanding of this problem in the Scottish Government who have already, in the middle of a lock down began directing people to Citizen Advice Bureaux, a primarily face to face service, through social media advertisements, like the one below.

This is wrong on so many levels.

First, all Citizen Advice Bureaux should be closed. We are all on lock down. If any are still open, they should be closed. The advice sector exists to help people and many of our clients are the most vulnerable in Society, often with serious underlying health problems. No advice agency should have their doors open. What we do is key, but in the context of this Crisis, it is not on the whole, life saving.

Secondly, although I am sure every Citizen Advice Bureau in Scotland is scrambling to put remote working in place, like every other advice agency, and offering services like telephone services from home, few of us were set up for this and we are all scrambling to adapt to the situation we are now in.

It is not an easy process.

Thirdly, to direct everyone down the one channel, when much of the advice capacity in this country doesn’t exist solely in Citizen Advice Bureaux, but across the sector as a whole, which includes Local Authority Money Advice Agencies, private sector insolvency firms, and national debt charities is ridiculous. Basically this is the recipe for creating a bottle kneck, that will quickly become choked and lead to many not being able to obtain the advice and support they need.

What would be more sensible would be for the Scottish Government to contact all local authorities and request they post prominently on their websites what local services are available for people (and most will anyway), with links and contact details.

These pages should also contain details of national websites and telephone helplines (most of which are partly funded by the Scottish Government anyway). The Scottish Government could then direct people to visit their local authority websites for information on what local services are available to them, which would contain details of Citizen Advice Bureaux, but also local authorities services, law centres, housing associations, foodbanks etc.

It’s clear to me this marketing campaign is more about the Scottish Government being seen to be doing something, rather than actually doing anything. It’s cover for the fact the Money Advice sector is in a very poor way.

It ignores the limited resources and challenges that all advice agencies are currently facing and does not even attempt to take a joined up approach to helping people.

A Strategy for Tomorrow

In the medium to long term, we need to now start thinking of a strategy for how we are going to deal with the problem that is coming down the line in a matter of months. The likliehood is, when the lock down is over, significant numbers of people are going to be traumatised.

Mental health problems will have increased, debts will have built up, households which previously survived on earned income will be workless and struggling with mortgages and problem debts.

Some will be struggling with bereavements.

The idea that this can be tackled with an army of volunteers, based on David Cameron’s Big Society, has to be shelved alongside the ideas of austerity.

The reality is most Citizen Advice Bureaux, like all advice agencies need more full-time paid, specialist staff to deal with the complexity that is the modern day benefit and debt advice sector we work in.

Don’t tell me we can’t afford it.

This is not the post war Britain that the Citizen Advice Movement was born into and their advisers have to be paid a wage that is commensurate with the level of expertise and skill they are expected to have and the level of responsibility they are expected to shoulder. They shouldn’t have to be claiming benefits and worrying about how they pay their mortgage as they help others do so.

We also need a more joined up approach between advice agencies, including the private sector. The truth is if you want to add capacity quickly, then private sector firms and national charities like Stepchange can help us do that quickly and recent changes to the Debt Arrangement Scheme, banning private management fees, will allow that to happen without the client suffering a detriment.

Equally, however, there will be huge numbers of people whose issues will be that complex, as will their wider needs, that face to face money advice services will need to work in partnership with other local support agencies, such as welfare rights, mental health, addiction and family support services. These will be required in greater numbers than before.

We need to be doing this now, as from experience I can say that skilled money advice workers can take between 18-24 months to train and we have lost a lot of that experience after ten years of austerity and cuts and don’t have that amount of time.

Maybe we could even ask some of those advisers that left if they will return to help us with what lies ahead.

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