Citizens Advice Bureaux across the UK are to benefit from a £39 million deal with the government. They will offer advice and provide a support service to claimants of the new, all in one benefit, Universal Credit.
Citizens Advice Scotland, CAS, have been accused of abandoning its principles by agreeing to work with the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP).
CAS have been strongly critical about Universal Credit which is currently being rolled out across Scotland. The decision to deliver an advice service which is known as ‘Universal Support’ has prompted cries of hypocrisy. It has provoked criticism from other welfare advisors and from its own volunteers.
Citizens Advice, CAS comes under fire from Welfare Scotland.
Rory Mair, Chairman of CAS said, last year, that the combined benefit had “major delivery and design flaws which risk hurting families instead of helping them.”
The Chairman of Welfare Scotland which campaigns for a more compassionate social security system, Rob McDowall, said Universal Credit remained seriously flawed. He could not see how CAS could work to support people through the system.
He went on to say: “I cannot understand how Citizens Advice can support a partnership deal with the DWP to assist them deliver a seriously flawed social security programme such as Universal Credit.”
“We have thousands of stories of real people being cruelly affected by this programme and I am confident that Citizens Advice will have a similar experience of Universal Credit. Such problems have emerged even though the system isn’t fully rolled out yet.”
System not fit for purpose.
The reality is the system isn’t fit for purpose. This partnership is more about the DWP offloading the responsibility of the department to support those in need to access the benefits they are entitled to. Less about the real effort to better understand the system.
The new Universal Credit combines previous benefits into one payment. It has been widely criticised for making claimants wait up to 6 weeks to receive it. The widespread use of financial sanctions and deductions for previous benefits’ overpayments is also criticised. Many families are left worse off and there are many stories of families having to use foodbanks and running up debts to survive.
Citizens Advice and CAS “had misjudged the issue.”
One independent debt blogger, Alan McIntosh, has said that Citizens Advice and CAS had misjudged the issue. They had allowed themselves to be used as a “Kevlar vest” by works and pensions minister Ester McVey.
He said, “They have previously criticised the roll out of Universal Credit and called it disastrous. It now appears they are going into partnership with the DWP to assist in that roll out. This is without new money being made available or any regulatory reform taking place to mitigate the effects.”
“The reality is there is little more that Citizens Advice can do but advise claimants how to seek advances (which gets people into debt). Advise people how to live on poverty levels of benefits or refer them to food banks.”
“The conclusion that will be drawn by many is that Citizens Advice have abandoned their principle of independence and have agreed to this partnership. Ignoring the experience of their own bureaux, their front line advisers and their service users, for £39 million.”
“Well documented” problems need fixing.
The Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group UK, Alison Garnham said the deal would be welcome if it helped Universal Credit claimants. Although, she called for the rolling out of the benefit to be halted. Until the many “well documented” problems with it could be fixed.
She said, “Unless the roll out of Universal Credit is paused, the new benefit will continue to roll out poverty to people’s doors.”
CAS defends its decision. It’s not “helping” the DWP roll out Universal Credit.
Derek Mitchell, the Chief executive of CAS said that volunteers were already providing support to those struggling with the new system in many local Citizen Advice Bureaux. CAS is not going to “help” the DWP to roll out the new benefit. Rather, with the benefit already being rolled out, advisors would be giving the same support they always had.
He said, “The Citizens Advice network in Scotland has seen first-hand how much hardship Universal Credit has caused to people claiming it in Scotland. We still firmly believe that all issues causing that hardship must be addressed.”
“Our position on problems with Universal Credit has not been changed. Nor has our impartiality. We will continue to urge the UK government to fix flaws in the Universal Credit system.”
CAS also insisted the deal was not a capitulation. It did not involve the organisation compromising its principles. “We are focused on actually helping people who need help today. If the government give us a bit more money to help us do that, we’ll take it.”
News comes as debt levels rise in Scotland.
In addition, the news comes as the average personal debt increased to more than £55,000 in Scotland. Similarly,those with financial difficulties saw an increase by an average of 11.6% in the second quarter of 2018
Scotland’s Personal Debt Index, PDI, was compiled following a survey of over 26,000 people across Scotland.
The level of national unsecured debt rose to £55,438 in the three months leading up to July. This was up from the previous quarter when it was £49,678.
Unsecured debt is not protected by an asset. Such as against a property, or by a guarantor. Types of this debt include credit cards, payday loans and bank loans.
One debt advice company’s spokesperson said, “The increasing reliance of borrowing money through pay day loans and banks loans and credit cards is a worrying trend, especially if it continues in the next few months.”
However, one positive to the statistics is “Although people are now coming to us with more debt, we should take comfort in the fact that are accessing financial help in the first place.”