The introduction of Universal Credit has certainly had an effect on low income households throughout the country.
And it has definitely had an impact on the organisation which seeks to ensure these families and individuals get a fair deal, with Grangemouth and Bo’ness Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) reporting the full rollout of this new form of benefit in February next year as being perhaps its biggest single challenge to date.
In another “challenging” year that has seen it help a total of 4335 clients with 11,700 enquiries, leading to almost £1.9 million of financial gains for people who need it most, the CAB has continued its commitment to assist the most vulnerable members of society.
In its annual report for 2016/2017 the CAB revealed it has helped clients to obtain new, or increase existing, welfare benefit awards, consumer refunds, unpaid wages, refunded bank charges and represented them at tribunals to have wrongly refused benefit decisions reversed.
Grangemouth and Bo’ness CAB manager Bill Palombo said: “Statistics showed that almost 70 per cent of CAB enquiries were either welfare benefit or debt related, and that 69 per cent of clients who visited the CAB were in one or more of the groups used as indicators of poverty – lone parents, household affected by disability, single pensioners, households affected by homelessness and single working age people in receipt of benefit or in low paid work.
“It’s clear the statistics reflect the impact of Welfare Reform and how it has had a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups such as those with physical and mental health issues.
“Universal Credit in particular, due to be rolled out in full in this area from February 2018, is the CAB’s next big challenge, given the existing evidence that it has already increased household poverty, increased evictions and referrals to food banks.”
Derek Mitchell, CEO of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) shared Mr Palombo’s view on the introduction of Welfare Reform and Universal Credit.
He said: “Universal Credit, in its current form, will cause severe hardship to many individuals and families.
“Waiting at least six weeks before receiving any money is simply not feasible for low income households with no savings and receiving an advance that has to be repaid simply means future benefit awards would be reduced even further – extending the period of severe hardship over a longer period.”
The Scottish Government provides additional funding to CAB offices, via Citizens Advice Scotland, to help them cope with the additional work caused by Welfare Reform and the onset of Universal Credit and in 2016/2017 that funding resulted in 502 clients being helped with 1434 enquiries.
The funding has also allowed CAB offices to increase their capacity to provide welfare benefits and debt advice, mostly via appointments outwith the office’s drop-in hours, giving the CAB time to deal fully with the clients’ enquiries.
In the last year the majority of clients, around 55 per cent, wanted advice on welfare benefits, while 11 per cent were looking for advice on debt and seven per cent needed assistance with employment issues.
The CAB negotiated £1.2 million of debt on behalf of clients and for every £1 of grant funding received, the CAB managed to generate £8.02 of financial gains for its clients.
Grangemouth and Bo’ness CAB chairman Tom Lambie said: “The targeting of vulnerable groups and making services more accessible in areas of deprivation are key aims in helping to reduce poverty and inequality.
“There is clear evidence the CAB service is well placed to contribute significantly to these aims.
“Falkirk Council has identified geographic communities within the area which exhibit substantially higher concentration of poverty than other areas.
“It also has identified areas which are ‘at risk’ of multiple deprivation.
“These areas account for nine per cent of the Falkirk Council area’s population, but 16 per cent of CAB clients.
“Effective governance of the CAB is crucial to ensure it adheres to its legal duties and can achieve its aims effectively.
“Grangemouth and Bo’ness CAB has experienced a reduction in funding from Falkirk Council in recent years.
“This has been managed by a subsequent reduction in volunteers and staffing, which has been mitigated to some degree by an increase in project funding and use of reserves.
“Although the number of new enquiries has inevitably decreased, much of the work undertaken with these clients has significantly increased.
“It is testament to the skills and efforts of the staff and volunteers we have produced these results and continue to provide the quality service required.
“We are grateful to them for this, and also to our funders for their support, the continuation of which will ensure this work continues.”
Copies of the annual report are available by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any enquiries about volunteering as an adviser are also welcome.