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The ‘deserts’ of debt advice

Crucial advice services threatened – as post-pandemic, food and fuel bills all pile up
UniteLive, Monday, November 8th, 2021


Debt advice ‘deserts’ will open up across England if moves to halve the funding for face-to-face services go ahead, Unite warned today (November 8). 

The union’s warning coincides with the beginning of this year’s Talk Money Week. Proposals from the Money and Pension Advice Service (MaPS) to slash key debt advice funding will add to what is already a ‘perfect storm’ for the most vulnerable people in society.

The threat from MaPS, which organises Money Advice Week, to halve face-to-face funding will mean redundancies for debt advice specialists and a much-reduced service for people in need of help, Unite’s debt adviser members say. Many areas will see reduced access to debt advisers and some services will close altogether.   

Three out of four to go   

In Leeds, three out of four MaPS-funded debt agencies will no longer be able to provide debt advice after March 31. According to internal projections by Citizens Advice meanwhile, in West Yorkshire 32 face-to-face adviser posts will be cut to 11 and in the East Riding and north Lincolnshire, 18.5 full-time equivalent posts will plummet to just four.

The debt advice specialists are concerned that moving to online consultations will mean people with complex debt problems will be left without the detailed advice and support they need to address spiralling debt. 

Unite also says that MaPS’ plans are based on research conducted before the pandemic and do not take into account the huge changes since March 2020.

Nearly three quarters of debt advisers say their cases are more complex now than before the pandemic. Many more people are juggling debt from rent arrears, loss of wages, increasing fuel costs and rising prices.

MaPS services are directly funded by the government via the Department for Work and Pensions and also has significant input from the Treasury. The union is calling on MaPS to halt the process while it commissions independent evidence and engages with frontline staff to find a way forward.

“Evidence seen by Unite shows that face-to-face MaPS-funded debt advice jobs will be reduced by more than 50 per cent from April 2022,” commented Unite national officer Siobhan Endean.

‘Devastation’

She continued, “This will mean devastation for this vital service, including redundancies for debt advisers and reduced services for people in need of help. Advice deserts will open up across England bringing real hardship to people who need someone to turn to.

“MaPS’ plans to shift from face-to-face advice towards call centres and webchat may work well for some people, but the most vulnerable people, and those with the most complex cases, can often only deal with their problems in person.

“We are saying to MaPS and the government that they must think again. The planned changes are based on out-of-date evidence which is not fit for these times. Our expert advisers report that the pandemic has made the cases they are dealing with so much more complicated.

“This process must be halted in order to engage frontline debt advisors in the future of this essential service.”

Unite’s Kerry Jenkins, CYNfP sector development assistant, is most concerned. She said,

“MaPS have put all the contracts they have in place with advice providers out for tender and Unite is really worried about the lack of public detail about what requirements MaPS set out in its tender document.

“What they are hearing so far is alarming. Moves include a reduction of face-to-face advice in favour of telephone and online delivery creating a postcode lottery of support; and an increase in ‘targets’ of the number of clients who get advice and penalties for those organisations who don’t meet them.

“Crucially there has been no meaningful engagement with frontline advisers and if the proposed 50 per cent reductions in funding face-to-face debt advice delivery goes ahead this will mean redundancies for debt advice specialists and a much-reduced service for people in need of help,” she added.

‘Extremely concerned’

Jenkins is not alone in her concerns. Unite lead officer for debt advice workers, Andy Murray said, “Unite is extremely concerned in relation to the amount of face to face advice which will be provided under the proposed new contracts and the potential loss of debt advice posts which we believe would not only directly impact on our members in the sector who carry out this work but also on Unite members and their families who are seeking to access advice on this important issue.

“We aim to protect the jobs of our members who have worked extremely hard during the coronavirus pandemic to support vulnerable members of the public and wish to continue doing so,” he added.

There is also support from Ruth Hayes, Unite national executive member for the not for profit sector said, “Our members in the advice sector provide essential support to people in a wide variety of ways. At the moment, more and more people are finding it harder to make ends meet, and debts that built up during the pandemic are now being pursued by creditors at the same time that prices are rising. 

“Over 3.8m households are in debt, with nearly 1m in rent arrears, 1.4m behind on Council Tax and the same number behind on gas and electricity bills. While there is a role for telephone and online help, in lots of situations only face to face advice can help people get real and long term solutions. 

“It is extremely concerning that funding for face to face debt advice is being cut by the Money and Pensions Service, just at this point when protection against action is ending, Universal Credit has been cut and the furlough scheme has ended.  Unite members are fighting not only for their own jobs, but also for vital front line services for their communities. 

“We call for funding to be maintained, and for the voices of our members to be listened to. Protect these vital services,” she urged.

UNITE IS CALLING FOR

Pause the commissioning process for a period of at least 12 months

Consult with advisers and agencies to create a proposal for the future for debt advice that takes into account frontline advisers’ knowledge and a full assessment of the impact of coronavirus

Provide immediate relief to overworked debt advisers by suspending the bureaucratic and time-consuming ‘Debt Advice Peer Assessment’ scheme

YOU CAN HELP

There are some simple actions to take to support the campaign:

  • Write to Caroline Sarkiewicz, Chief Executive of MaPS at Caroline.Sarkiewicz@maps.org.uk using the points above in the content of the letter.
  • Write and pose questions to Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – therese.coffey.mp@parliament.uk including some of the suggested questions here.

SOME SUGGESTED QUESTIONS:

“What assessment has been made of the need for, and geographical coverage of, face-to-face debt advice services after April 2022?”

“Can you commit that my constituents will have the same access to face to face debt advice after April 2022?”

“Do you agree that face-to-face debt advice is a crucial way that the most vulnerable in society get support to deal with their debts?”

“How have frontline debt advisers, and people with lived experience of debt, been directly involved in the MaPS commissioning process?”

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Talk Money Week is on 8-12 November. During this week please include the hashtag #TalkMoney in your tweets. At other times, please use the hashtag #SaveDebtAdvice.

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By Ryan Fletcher and Kerry Jenkinson

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