ON the face of it, it looks like a good-news story – Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) helped more than 300,000 Scots last year, putting an extra £120 million in their pockets and delivering excellent value for every pound of public funding it received. This looks like David Cameron’s “big society” at its best, with volunteers lending their knowledge and skills to help fellow citizens in need. So good news, right?
Well, not really. Because behind these successes lie a catalogue of failures elsewhere: failures of our social security systems, failures of financial services regulation, failures of housing and energy providers. Scotland is fortunate to have a “safety net beneath the safety net”, as CAS describes itself in its first-ever impact report, but this raises an obvious question: why is the first safety net full of holes?
In line with the current trend, the new report begins with an infographic bearing key facts and figures. These are important, particularly to the civil servants who review funding applications, but much of the case work they capture provides sticking-plaster solutions to deep-rooted problems. That’s not in any way to criticise the work of CAS – with whom I have volunteered as an adviser in the past – but to point out that in an ideal world most of it wouldn’t be needed. In an ideal world the organisation would not have needed to support its case-study subject Dan, a disabled veteran, for six months while he made repeated benefit appeals and applied to charities for subsistence funds.
In an ideal world, people who have never used a computer in their lives wouldn’t be told they have to apply for benefits online
In the same ideal world, people who have never used a computer in their lives wouldn’t be told they have to apply for benefits online, unscrupulous boiler companies wouldn’t cold-call pensioners pretending to be from the government, and landlords wouldn’t ignore urgent requests for repairs from their tenants. If these things didn’t happen to begin with, people wouldn’t need independent advice about how to proceed.
More than a third of advice enquiries received by CAS relate to benefits and tax credits, and the charity Turn2Us has found that almost half of low-income households are missing out on payments to which they are entitled. One could be forgiven for thinking the Department for Work and Pensions deliberately makes things difficult for people by failing to provide the simple benefit checks that would resolve this problem at a stroke. Instead, it devolves responsibility to charities and obliges claimants to do the initial leg work, secure in the knowledge that most of them won’t (Turn2Us has an online benefits calculator, and CAS carries out benefit checks for those who need extra assistance). The UK Government may save money in the short term when benefits go unclaimed – as much as £15bn per year, according to some estimates – but longer-term potential consequences of poverty like homelessness, physical and mental ill-health and social work involvement come with hefty price tags. The government won’t be publishing any snazzy infographics spelling out these impacts of DWP policies of obstruction and obfuscation.
CAS isn’t merely an advice-giving service: it’s also a campaigning organisation that uses the data it gathers to identify and highlight policy problems
Alongside that figure of £15bn, the £7.5m a year allocated to CAS looks like a drop in the ocean, but that funding has been called into question in light of CAS’s much-publicised woes behind the scenes. Earlier this year the charity was given notice that the money would be withheld pending a governance review. The crisis was triggered by the sacking of its chief executive Margaret Lynch amid an expenses scandal, but it was claimed the board were also uneasy about Lynch’s outspoken opposition to welfare reform. Therein lies one of the problems with the government creating a mess and then paying someone else to clean it up. CAS isn’t merely an advice-giving service: it’s also a campaigning organisation that uses the data it gathers to identify and highlight policy problems. Sometimes this work has the potential to embarrass the government, local authorities or regulators.
It’s not easy to quantify the value of campaign work in pounds and pence. Prevention is better than cure but it’s often difficult to say exactly what has been prevented or how things might have panned out otherwise. For example, in 2015/16 CAS clients were supported to reduce debts by almost £27m, but it is likely many payday loan arrangements were averted altogether thanks to new regulations brought in after three years of dogged campaigning. Demand for advice about these products has declined sharply, and some of the firms involved have gone out of business altogether. Going forward, if fewer people take on loans to begin with then the figures in future reports may give the impression CAS’s work on debt reduction is having less impact, when in fact the problem of irresponsible lending has been effectively tackled at the root.
In future CAS will doubtless take extra care that its campaigns focus on solutions rather than drawing attention to the system failures that have caused the problems. But it is to be hoped this will not serve to neuter its work, or steer it towards a focus on picking up the pieces rather than addressing issues at their source. Campaigns about unfair parking tickets, rural delivery charges and scams are very welcome but won’t cause much alarm to politicians seeing as their targets are landowners, online vendors and criminals respectively. If the data on advice requests is anything to go by, it would appear that a campaign to raise awareness of unclaimed benefits – while politically much more controversial – would have the greatest impact of all.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.
For advice from Citizens Advice Scotland visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland/, call Citizens Advice Direct on 0808 800 9060 or find your local bureau online. For consumer issues call 03454 04 05 06. To learn more about the work of CAS see www.cas.org.uk.