The organisation can no longer cope with surging demand from millions battling debt, losing jobs and facing homelessness
Desperate people seeking help during the recession are being turned away by the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Budget cutbacks and law changes forced through by the Tory-led Coalition Government are crippling the bureau’s attempts to help ordinary people get by… at the very time when more people than ever need urgent help.
The organisation – set up in 1939 to help people during the war – can no longer cope with surging demand from millions battling debt, losing jobs and facing homelessness.
The budget cuts mean CAB centres across the country are reducing their opening hours and axeing staff.
Staff and volunteers of the nationwide network helped people sort out seven million problems last year – up by more than one million since 2008.
But now so many people are turning up at the charity’s offices, many unable to pay basic household bills, that some branches are not taking on any new cases until the backlog is cleared.
Some people are left with nowhere to go even if they are threatened by bailiffs or loan sharks.
People suffering from cancer will endure additional hardship as some CABs can no longer continue paying for the service they run alongside the Macmillan cancer charity advising patients on benefits.
In Bolton, the CAB is not taking on new cases until its backlog of 1,500 problems is sorted out.
National spokesman Moira Haynes said: “All CABs are wondering how they will be able to continue beyond the next financial year.”
There are 400 CAB offices across England and Wales. Each one is an independent charity… but the money to fund their work has come under attack on four fronts.
Local authorities have had to cut their contributions after being squeezed by the Treasury, help from Legal Aid is under threat due to changes in the Legal Aid Bill, help from the Government’s Financial Inclusion Fund ended last year, and the extra funding provided by Labour has not been continued.
This year Citizens Advice estimates it will have a total of just £137million to spend, a 23 per cent cut over just two years.
“It’s now clear that cuts are beginning to disrupt our front-line services across the country, just as people struggle to cope with the impact of job losses, reductions in public services and a massive jump in the cost of living,” said chief executive Gillian Guy.
It is estimated that every £1 spent on CAB services saves taxpayers £8.80. The advice of debt and benefits experts cuts out millions in legal bills and court fees.
The Newcastle CAB has longer queues than for Greggs bakery
THE longest queue in Newcastle’s Nelson Street used to be people buying breakfast at Greggs bakery.
Now it’s next door at the Citizens Advice Bureau. And most people don’t have enough cash to buy a hot pasty… with or without VAT on the price.
“If you get more customers waiting than Greggs, that tells you everything about how bad things are here,” says Shona Alexander, chief executive of the Newcastle CAB.
She’s furious at the way Government cuts have plunged the charity into a funding crisis. “We get so many people, we let the first wave in and then have to lock the doors,” she says.
The Newcastle CAB was one of the first to be set up in England and helps up to 10,000 people a year with a huge range of problems, from redundancy to being hounded by loan sharks.
The 24 paid staff and 85 volunteers see as many people as they can, but many people seeking help have to make several visits just to get an appointment.
More than 40 people were queueing in the rain hoping to be seen on Thursday, when the Sunday Mirror joined the CAB team.
We found a mixed group, including 59-year-old Peter (not his real name), who is partially blind and disabled.
He can’t fill out the 55-page form he’s been given to get his £20.55 a week disability living allowance.
He has relied on the CAB for help with filling in forms for years. The special adviser who knows him well will be made redundant next April if the charity can’t find extra funding.
Adviser Andrew Young, who faces losing his own job next April, said: “Working here can be heartbreaking. People are frightened, worried, they sit in here and they are in tears.”
The Newcastle CAB has an annual budget of £850,000, but that will be halved next year.
Shona says: “It’s like the whole train is going to come off the tracks.” As she speaks, a shocked staff member reports that one of her clients, a woman of 43 who was depressed over money troubles, has been found dead.
‘Crisis loan made me feel like a scrounger’
It was their first visit to a Citizens Advice Bureau… somewhere married couple David and Amanda – not their real names – thought they would never need.
But two weeks ago, quantity surveyor David, 32, was made redundant from his £32,000-a-year job, and Amanda, 33, had already given up her £25,000 salary as a nursery manager to care for their children, aged seven and four.
“We’ve got debts of £90,000 and a three-bed semi that’s worth £15,000 less than we paid for it,” says David. “We borrowed money to improve our home when we were both earning good money.
“It seemed the right move at the time, but then Amanda had to give up her job and we borrowed again to pay off credit cards. Now I’ve lost my job out of the blue and suddenly all access to any more loans has gone.”
Amanda says they can’t sleep at night worrying about their debts.
Seeking help from a CAB debt adviser was the first step to sorting out their spiralling money problems.
“The people here have been great,” says Amanda. “Sensible advice and it’s been really useful. But the most humiliating thing has been having to apply for a crisis loan using the telephone helpline run by the Department for Work and Pensions.
“I had no option. We had no money for the gas and electricity pre-pay meters and no food in the cupboards.
“I got £170, but when I went to the post office to cash the cheque the woman at the counter looked at me with disgust as she counted out the money.
“It’s like she thinks I’m a scrounger. But we’re hard-working people who have just fallen on hard times. Thank God the CAB is here to help people like us.”