The ‘deserts’ of debt advice
Crucial advice services threatened – as post-pandemic, food and fuel bills all pile up
Debt advice ‘deserts’ will open up across England if moves to halve the funding for face-to-face services go ahead, Unite warned on 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.
“Moves include a reduction of face-to-face advice in favour of telephone and online delivery creating a postcode lottery of support”
Kerry Jenkins, Unite sector support assistant
Over 3.8m UK households are currently in debt
Nearly 1m households are in rent arrears
Around 1.4m households are behind on Council Tax
Around 1.4m are behind on gas and electricity bills.
- A pause in 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
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. 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.
By uniteEXTRA team
"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"
Andy Murray, Unite lead officer
"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"
Siobhan Endean, Unite national officer