Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Citizens Advice cuts threaten the most vulnerable” was written by Jill Insley, for The Observer on Saturday 3rd September 2011 22.59 Europe/London

Ashleigh Atkinson has come to the Cambridge city branch of Citizens Advice to collect a food voucher. Once the voucher has been completed by his adviser, Harriet, he can take it to the nearby food bank and collect a box of provisions that will keep him going for three days.

“There are two food banks in Cambridge,” says Rachel Talbot, chief executive of the Cambridge CAB. “I think it’s worrying that, in a city like this, we’re handing out food vouchers. A couple of years ago it would have been one voucher a week, but now it’s one a day.”

For the likes of Atkinson, it is a godsend. This is the third voucher in a row he has applied for since his benefits were stopped at the start of July through no fault of his own. He has a letter proving that he was instructed not to attend an interview training session, but the centre providing the training – and which sent him the letter – still reported him to Jobcentre Plus as a non-attendee. This resulted in immediate suspension of his jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit.

The knock-on effects of the decision could prove very expensive for local and central government should he end up losing his home. The housing charity Crisis has calculated the cost of dealing with the results of homelessness can add up to £50,000 a person, and Talbot estimates that in Cambridge £25,000 would be a reasonable figure for rehousing a family.

It could also be dangerous for Atkinson, who has spent 12 of his 33 years of life in prison, and lived on the streets for three years following his last spell in detention. After becoming a drug addict, he was eventually given help to kick his habit and get off the streets, first living in a hostel and now in a council flat. He has a dog, a white labrador called Blizzard, and the security of having a proper home has enabled him to take a very active role in parenting his eight-year-old son, who stays with him at weekends.

But since his benefits were stopped he has been unable to look after his son because he has no money for food, and his rent is in arrears.

“I’ve been living out of the bins at the back of Tesco and Aldi. That’s how I’ve been feeding the dog, too,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m trying to do everything I can to be a decent, honest person, but everyone seems to be saying ‘jog on’. Apart from Citizens Advice.”

Atkinson has contested the decision, an appeal is under way and his benefits are meant to have been reinstated, but five weeks later he still has just 82p in his bank account. Harriet speaks to Jobcentre Plus and verifies that a payment should have reached his account that morning. She advises him to check with his bank again, and to return the following morning if nothing has materialised. He also has debt problems, so she sets up an appointment for him to see one of the bureau’s specialist debt advisers.

The bureau is doing everything it can to ensure that Atkinson keeps his home. Last year the Cambridge CAB helped 500 families stay in their homes, saving the local authority £12.5m, according to Talbot’s calculations. In return, the CAB gets £167 in payment for a benefits case, and £200 for a debt or £174 for a housing case.

Good value for money, you might think.

But, ironically, the Cambridge CAB is, itself, facing a financial crisis, and the advice that Atkinson is being given may not be on offer next year. The organisation expects to lose 25% of its funding from 2012 – money that pays for specialist face-to-face advice on claiming benefits and dealing with debts – as legal aid funding cuts take effect.

Although Citizens Advice is a national charity, each bureau is responsible for raising its own funding. Some of this comes from the National Lottery and other charities or benefactors in the area who usually specify a particular use for the money. But a large chunk of funding – the money that is used for face-to-face specialist advice and administrative support – comes from local authorities and the Legal Services Commission, which face their own funding problems.

In Cambridge, that funding is worth £250,000 and pays for 10 employed advisers helping people who have been referred to them because they have complicated debt or benefits problems that the volunteer generalist advisers cannot solve. Until this year funding also paid for advisers to help those with mental health problems, both in the bureau and, one day a week, in a local hospital, but that money has already been cut.

Talbot says that funding for this type of advice is harder to come by because “it’s not sexy”.

“People think the clients are scroungers, that they didn’t ‘get on their bikes’. It’s just ridiculous because that’s not the profile of the people we’re seeing at all.”

The CAB is also staffed by more than 100 volunteer advisers, who deal with simpler problems and decide whether a client needs to be referred to a specialist adviser. Collectively, they deal with an average of 74 new clients a day – by email, phone and face-to-face.

Demand is growing, and on the day I visit, the receptionist is forced to start turning people away at 10.30am, knowing that anyone who arrives for the drop-in session after that will not be seen on the same day. One is complaining that he was turned away yesterday, as well: the receptionist advises him to arrive when the office opens at 9.30am.

The issue of demand outstripping supply is affecting several CABs around the country, and the charity believes this issue, made worse by recent funding cuts, could mean many people are not getting the help they need, when they need it. The charity will release figures later this week showing that the number of people successfully seeking help from their local CAB has fallen since funding cuts affecting many bureaux came into effect in April.

To relieve the pressure, Talbot’s team has developed an online information system to run in Advicehub touch screen computer kiosks in 14 sites around Cambridgeshire. These include council offices, health and community centres, libraries and Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The system provides CAB advice and links to other organisations’ websites, with issues ranging from benefits and debts to landlords refusing to repair rental properties. One of the most frequent search requests has been for information about the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

The kiosks have proved popular: in the four months to the end of June they were used by 5,811 people. And although each booth costs £5,000, it has been easier to find money for these as they are new and often based in the office of the organisation providing the funding.

But Talbot admits this is no substitute for face-to-face advice. She says: “The key thing about the investment is not only are we helping more people to be more independent and sort themselves out, it also means we can focus our limited resources on less able people who can’t help themselves.”

However, given the complexity of the benefits system, even the most able clients can struggle with completing forms. Joanne Doggett was secretary to a psychiatrist until her very young son developed diabetes four years ago and she had to give up work to become his full-time carer.

Having dealt with one lot of benefits forms, Doggett thought filling in a disability living allowance application for her partner, who suffers a severe and enduring mental health problem, should be feasible. Not so. “I did try to do it myself first of all but he was refused, so I obviously didn’t fill the form in correctly,” she says.

Claimants often make the mistake of wanting to make their condition sound better than it actually is, says Doggett’s adviser Pebble Padfield. “It’s all about how to present the information so they understand your problems; how to convey the pain that you suffer and the effect that it has on your everyday life.

“You might say that you ‘can go to a cafe’, but that does not inform the person reading the form that you can only face going to the cafe at a quiet time with a very trusted friend, perhaps once every six months.”

Filling in a benefits application form incorrectly, or with insufficient detail, often causes delays lasting up to a year before an appeal is heard. Many people give up in the meantime.

However, with demand for advice growing, and funds being cut, the most needy clients will inevitably miss out on specialised guidance. “We won’t abandon people with debt and benefits problems once the funding has gone,” Talbot says. “We’ll have to deal with them through the generalist service. But it will be a much diminished service.”

The story is very similar at the Mansfield CAB in Nottinghamshire. The small waiting room is heaving, and the receptionist starts turning visitors away at 11.30am.

This CAB has been threatened with particularly severe funding cuts: Mansfield district council wants to reduce the amount it contributes by 37% retrospectively, to include this year’s budget, even though the money is already being spent, while the Nottinghamshire county council is planning a 74% cut in funding from next year. It will also be losing £200,000 in legal aid, which has been used to pay for face-to-face advice. Last year the CAB had £760,000 in funding, which fell to £620,00 this year. Next year it could drop by a further £286,000.

Although its chief executive officer, Simon Hartley-Jones, has applied for £200,000 in funding from the National Lottery, this has been earmarked for a specific purpose – training people in financial literacy: It will not replace the legal aid money.

One of the Mansfield CAB clients, David Carman, has been so incensed by the threatened cuts, he has brought legal-aid funded cases against the two councils. “It was the only way I could pay anything back to CAB for helping me,” he says.

Carman is a debt client, with a very typical case history. He got into difficulty with his debts after a heart attack and stroke forced him to stop work as a long-distance lorry driver at the age of 49.

He and his wife sought help from a fee-charging debt management firm, but it was only after his wife died 18 months ago that Carman realised they had been taken for a ride. Of the £7,000 they had paid towards their £12,000 debts, only £1,500 had actually been used to clear their borrowings; the rest had gone in fees to the debt management company.

Four of Carman’s five stepchildren were still living with him and he could no longer keep the household running and make the full monthly debt repayment of more than £200 out of his benefits payments of just over £500 a month. He asked to borrow the £2,200 he needed for his wife’s funeral from the government-run Social Fund, but was awarded just £1,000. He borrowed the remaining £1,200 from a loan shark, paying £450 in interest over the three month term. “Absolutely everything went to him: we lived (on food) out of the freezer while we could,” says Carman. “He came to the door to collect every week. Afterwards, he said I could borrow any time, but once was once too often.”

Reduced income and payments to the loan shark meant there was not enough money to pay the premiums on his debt management plan, but Carman only discovered the debt management company had dumped him as a client when his bank contacted him to say the premium had not been collected for several months. This had the disastrous effect of triggering interest charges on his debts – charges had been suspended while he was paying the debts off – and he now owes more than £15,000.

His CAB adviser Lisa Garnett initially suggested he apply for a debt relief order – a form of bankruptcy designed for those with debts of less than £15,000 which costs just £90 – but an overpayment of income support two years ago (which is now being clawed back by the government) has taken him over the limit, and he cannot afford the £525-plus court fees needed to apply for normal bankruptcy. Instead, Garnett will be offering his creditors a token payment of £1 a month.

Garnett is one of three specialist debt advisers at the Mansfield bureau: she saw nine new clients last week and has between 35 and 50 already on her books. The majority need help with debts arising from a life change: divorce, death in the family, unemployment, ill health. Very few have spent frivolously. “It’s very rare that we see people who are just ‘trying’ the system – 99% of people are like David [Carman],” she says.

Mansfield ticks all the boxes when it comes to poverty: it has a significantly higher than average teenage pregnancy rate, and is one of the most deprived districts in England. It also faces hefty job losses: the biggest employers in the town are the NHS and the local authority. As Hartley-Jones says, “Mansfield always feels like it’s in recession. It’s never recovered from the closure of the pits.”

While Cambridge CAB sends people to the food banks, the Mansfield bureau relies heavily on the Salvation Army. “We wouldn’t be able to manage without the Salvation Army. We refer people to them rather than to the social fund,” he says.

If the proposed cuts go ahead, Garnett, who gave up a secure job in debt collections at a high street bank for a one-year contract at Citizens Advice, could lose her job just as interest rates start rising, prompting a huge rise in new clients for the bureau. She says: “People are definitely more desperate. So many are on the edge, the minute interest rates go up we’re going to see a flood of people suffering repossession.”

For people in such an extreme situation, nothing but face-to-face advice will do. Many CAB clients are illiterate, or would struggle to express themselves adequately by phone. But Garnett adds: “To a certain degree it’s a counselling role. You have to spend about 20 minutes getting their confidence. Then they will often sit there for five or 10 minutes sobbing because they are overwhelmed, so worked up and stressed by it. You just sit there handing out tissues.”

Cases typically stay on Garnett’s books for five or six months, after which time clients’ problems should be sufficiently resolved that they can negotiate with creditors themselves. But she invariably sees such clients returning – not because they have reneged on the arranged deal, but because the creditors refuse to talk to them. In most cases they will only deal with CAB advisers.

Hartley-Jones says: “The banks should fund debt advice, but they give almost nothing. Yet in all their brochures they advise people to come to Citizens Advice if they are struggling.”

The CAB advisers also do plenty of work sorting out problems involving the Pensions service, the Department of Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs: each of these departments has set up dedicated phone lines for advisers. Nevertheless, it still takes an adviser 10 attempts to get through on behalf of a client.

The cuts are already making themselves felt. The Mansfield bureau has 17 paid staff and 40 volunteers: It ought to have 60, but has lost its training support staff as a result of previous funding cuts. It has also lost one of the staff employed to advise and support the voluntary generalist advisers. This means the bureau stops giving advice at 1pm instead of 4pm.

“Today we turned away 10 people,” says Jillian Hodson, a former teacher and one of the voluntary advisers. “And among those 10 there will be a disaster story. It takes an awful lot to come in and ask for help. They spend all weekend keying themselves up, then get told to go away again.”

The government believes more advice should be given over the phone and internet, but these sources of help are also struggling under the weight of demand. In June, the Mansfield CAB’s three telephone operators dealt with 3,000 calls: It sounds a lot, but it represents just 6.7% of those made to the office.

So where will people be able to get help in the future if the CAB service is cut back? One Mansfield client says: “I wouldn’t know where to go. I’ve been on many websites, but the information is rather complicated.” A second says: “The advice centre in Kirkby (eight miles from Mansfield) – but it’s now closed.” Another says: “Nowhere – I have looked online but I’m still unaware of my rights.”

Back in East Anglia, single parent and former business development director Lesley Murray was originally helped with her financial and benefit problems by the Cambridge Law Centre and Law For All, but these have both closed. Struggling with her health and benefits claims, Murray turned to the Cambridge CAB for help in completing her Employment and Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) tribunal forms.

“I would be devastated if this advice were no longer provided. You need someone who knows their way around the system,” she says.

Most people who have seen the 38-page application form for DLA, which includes questions about how long it takes you to go to the toilet, and how many times you have fallen or stumbled in the last year, would surely agree.

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