Associate Feature: Ending poverty means everyone should be able to access advice
As we look to move beyond the pandemic and towards recovery, loosening the grip of poverty and inequality in our communities is absolutely essential. What policymakers should understand is that ending poverty in Scotland is an economic imperative as well as a moral crusade.
It’s completely unacceptable that we have people forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families this winter, but it has knock on effects for our wider economy too. Around 1.4 million people ran out of money before pay day at least once during the pandemic. We won’t see economic growth when so many people are one big unexpected bill away from being pulled under, instead we’ll see the strain on our hard pressed public services increase further.
Our advice is worth around £245million a year in net benefits to Scottish society. This is a great example of the kind of preventive measures the Christie Commission recommended. If someone gets advice from a CAB that maximises their income, and no longer has to choose between heating and eating, the associated health problems from that are prevented. Across the Citizens Advice network this saves our NHS millions of pounds every year.
The pandemic posed real challenges to the CAB network. Their advice was never more needed, but their ability to deliver that advice through a series of national lockdowns was under threat. Our CABs did not miss a beat, transitioning to remote working and providing advice over email, webchat and the phone. In some instances, where vulnerable clients had complex needs, CABs used face to face advice and outreach visits.
The results were simply staggering. Over 171,000 people got help during the pandemic, with around £147 million unlocked for people through things like employment entitlements, social security payments and debt reductions.
Our online advice site also saw soaring levels of engagement, with around 2.5 million users during the pandemic.
It’s this online aspect I want to consider for a moment.
The demographics of our clients during the pandemic were younger and more affluent – this will be a combination of factors between the impact of the pandemic itself but also ease of access to services like online advice and helplines.
Of the 1.4 million people who ran out of cash before pay day I mentioned earlier, around 369,000 people had to go without internet access at least once as a result. Around 397,600 people went without mobile phone access.
That is hundreds of thousands of people who would benefit from the income maximisation work that the CAB network provides, but without the resources to access advice online or over the phone.
The pandemic introduced new ways of working for many of us, but there is a risk that a shift towards digital first – or digital only – provision of public services will exclude the most vulnerable, particularly older people and people on low incomes, who are often those who benefit most from the free, confidential and impartial advice CABs provide.
Shifting service provision out of communities to more remote locations also undermines the localism agenda which Scotland wants to build on. CABs are anchors in their local communities, organised in a way to best suit the needs of local people, and the local knowledge and intelligence delivered by face to face advice simply can’t be replicated in a more remote or centralised setting.
Ultimately, what people in Scotland want is the power to get advice in a way that suits them best, so a multi-channel approach is important. Our experience of this is people select the channel often according to the problems they are facing, and there is no real substitute for face to face advice in many cases. Scotland needs a mix of all of these options.
So Scotland needs bold and radical thinking at a policy level to end poverty. A strong social security safety net, an economic agenda that creates well paid jobs, and affordable housing and utilities, but we cannot forget about delivery, how people access these services in the first place and navigate the welfare state. Those most vulnerable still need access to face to face services, otherwise a bold policy agenda will be undermined.
Derek Mitchell is chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland
This article is sponsored by Citizens Advice Scotland.