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2 Dec 2009 : Column 77WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 December 2009

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Citizens Advice Bureaux

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Kerry McCarthy.)

9.30 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this important debate, not only to celebrate the achievements of citizens advice bureaux in the past 70 years, but to look at their current difficulties and the challenges that they face in the future.

The CAB service began life in 1939 as a national wartime emergency service. On 4 September 1939, the day after war was declared, 200 bureaux opened their doors for the first time. From the outset, the service's twin aims of providing advice to individuals about their problems and using evidence gathered during the advice process to influence policy in practice were evident. In those early days, evidence from the bureaux secured extra clothing rations for pregnant women and extra cheese rations for gardeners involved in "digging for victory".

As the blitz and flying bombs wreaked havoc on the civilian population, the first CAB advisers were busy dealing with the consequences of air raids. They were tracing missing persons, arranging the evacuation of women, children and elderly people, and helping with war damage claims for people who had lost family members and their homes.

Unexpectedly, by the end of the war there was an increase in demand for the service. Family problems, poor housing and the need to get to grips with the new national health service all presented challenges. In the 1950s, the housing shortage, overcrowding, the end of rent controls and the new availability of hire purchase led to mounting debt problems and a huge hike in CAB case loads.

The 1960s saw no relief to housing problems as rents rocketed, many people lived in slum conditions and homelessness rose. At that time, a quarter of the problems dealt with by CAB were housing-related. In the 1970s, family and personal problems remained the No. 1 issue, but housing inquiries were up 16 per cent. following the Rent Act 1974, which extended protection to furnished tenants. However, inquiries about consumer problems rocketed 46 per cent. following the consumer boom and new consumer protection legislation in 1974.

The two recessions of the 1980s led to a dramatic rise in inequality. Inquiries about debt and benefits doubled, in line with unemployment. However, it was the debt stemming from easy credit that created a major growth area; indeed, it became the single most pressing problem for CAB clients in the late 1980s.

By the 1990s, CAB was dealing with more than 7.5 million inquiries a year. Benefits, including the new child support scheme, became the No. 1 issue and changes to disability benefits and cuts in support for
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asylum seekers generated a huge number of inquiries. By the turn of the century, freely available credit, combined with a lack of affordable housing, caused debt, bankruptcy and repossessions to soar. Therefore, the demand for specialist advice about money escalated.

So, for 70 years, citizens advice bureaux have been providing a free, confidential, independent and impartial service, face to face and via the telephone, and now they also provide the service online and by e-mail. That is a truly amazing record. Each year, 6 million advice issues are dealt with by CAB and 1.9 million clients are advised by local bureaux. There are also 8.8 million visits to the public information and advice website. Citizens advice bureaux are a lifeline. Furthermore, a remarkable 86 per cent. of service users are satisfied with the service and £86 million is the staggering figure for the estimated value to the economy of people volunteering with the Citizens Advice service.

Debt, benefits and tax credits, employment and housing remain the key issues on which advice is sought. Providing help might involve just assisting people to fill in benefit application forms, supporting them to exercise their statutory rights, negotiating with their creditors or offering financial education.

The Government have long acknowledged the vital role of CAB and 78 per cent. of the national funding for Citizens Advice comes from Government grants, mainly from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In recognition of the increased number of people coming to Citizens Advice for help during the recession, central Government allocated additional resources of £10 million to bureaux this year, to facilitate increased opening hours. That money was very welcome, but the additional hours of advice project did not meet the needs of some of the most hard-pressed bureaux. For instance, my local Moorlands service could not take advantage of that opportunity, because current funding and staff resources were insufficient to support the changes required to expand the service, even with the additional money from the Government.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The problem that she has just outlined is crucial. We seem to be getting fewer and larger bureaux, particularly in rural areas. Therefore, does she agree that rural outreach is an issue that local and central Government might want to examine to see how outreach services can offer support in rural areas?

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely. That is particularly important as transport can be so difficult in rural areas; that is where the online and telephone services come into their own. However, clients, particularly elderly clients, often prefer face-to-face contact, so such contact is really important too.

Each local citizens advice bureau is an independent charity. Each relies on the support of a wide range of funders, including central and local Government, charitable trusts, companies and individuals. Although everyone from the Prime Minister to primary care trusts and local councils talks up the important role of the third sector in facing current challenges, there appears to be very little additional money available locally to help the sector to continue to provide existing services or to enable it to be innovative.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend painted the statistical picture of CAB, although they themselves acknowledge that millions of people cannot get a slot to see an adviser and that their phones often go unanswered. At a local level, almost half of the money for CAB comes from the local authorities, which, as we know, will be cash-strapped in the years that lie ahead. Therefore, is there not a risk that those queues to see advisers and those unanswered calls will grow in number, to the extent that they damage the reputation of CAB? Furthermore, the additional hours of advice project that the Government are funding ceases 17 weeks today, on 31 March 2010. Let us hope that the Minister has something good to tell us in his winding-up speech.

Charlotte Atkins: I certainly agree with that. It is not just local authority funding that is an issue, but the fact that local authorities are unwilling to provide core funding. Often, local authorities are looking at new projects and innovative arrangements rather than the core funding that they need to provide help to those people coming across the threshold of citizens advice bureaux every single day.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I also commend the hon. Lady for securing this timely debate.

Like the hon. Lady, I have an excellent local Citizens Advice service in east Hertfordshire. In the last year, the advisers, despite being largely voluntary, have helped more than 9,600 people. However, I have a question for her. She talks about the balance of funding. It seems to me that the balance of national funding is skewed heavily to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which may have understandable issues, but the real issue for the public-our citizens-is delivery of the service on the ground. The worry is that the split in value is not being shown in the value that people experience on the ground. Does she agree that it is important that that should change, because although we may need an effective centre, the most important element of the service-namely, the front-line volunteers-has to be able to do its job, particularly in troubling times?

Charlotte Atkins: The national service and the local service are equally important. At the start of my remarks, I made it clear that citizens advice bureaux have two approaches: to deal with issues on the ground and individual problems, and to gather from that advice service the lessons for policy making and development of programmes. The two approaches are complementary and I would not want to say that one is more important than the other.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is generous in giving way in this excellent debate. Of course, we all have good bureaux in our constituencies, and Chorley's is second to none in the service it provides, but ultimately bureaux rely on the national association for specialist advice, such as on insurance and everything they need to ensure their own survival. Both the national association and the local bureaux are important and go hand in hand. Does she agree that we cannot afford to lose one at the expense of the other?

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Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely, because the bureaux work to very high, nationally specified standards. We are not talking about individual bureaux doing their own thing. Their advisers are trained to a high standard, and that is controlled from the centre.

Citizens advice bureaux are a special case because they cannot charge individuals for their services. Moreover, the wide range of advice they offer to so many different types of client and their local partnership work give them a unique and valuable place in the community. Managers of local services and CAB colleagues are in great demand.

I will focus on Biddulph CAB, but the situation is the same for many other bureaux, including the one in Leek. Staff there regularly attend the local authority homelessness prevention team, community and learning partnership boards, Jobcentre Plus liaison, local community forums, local community and voluntary services, and many other events that raise community awareness of the issues they face. Such information sharing and community involvement are vital, focusing agencies and local authorities on local needs.

Local organisations want more and more input from the bureaux, but for the most part they do not want to pay for it. The exception is Biddulph town council, which increased its grant funding by 50 per cent. this year in recognition of the increased demands the economic situation was placing on its local bureau. That stands in contrast to the actions of Conservative-controlled Staffordshire county council, which has explicitly excluded core running costs from its £100,000 Closing the Gaps for Communities Fund. It is also changing the way it funds CAB so that Moorlands CAB is facing the loss of 36 of its current 54 hours of money advice from next April. That is clearly crazy, when the service is so vital.

The reluctance of funders to provide money to run core services is not confined to county councils. Most funders want to fund new, innovative projects. Biddulph CAB asked one of its current project funders to consider continuing funding the project because it had exceeded its targets and met local needs, but was told that, although an application could be made, it would go to the bottom of the pile unless it had something new to offer.

Funders often want to fund something specific, such as a particular community group or activity in an area of deprivation, but if the bureaux cannot run their core services they cannot support project work properly. For instance, most clients requiring specialist money advice or welfare benefits assistance will have been seen by a volunteer, initially through the core service. Citizens Advice is listed on most Government and other agency publications and publicity material, so the bureaux are frequently a first point of contact, but no one wants to fund those front-line core services.

However, what will happen if bureaux have to close or reduce their services, and who will pick up the pieces? If that happened, I would have a much higher case load as an MP and would lose the expertise of my local bureaux on local community and social policy issues. No organisation is better placed to gather evidence and campaign for change to improve the lives of those most in need. Most importantly, the impact on clients of bureaux closures would be devastating. It is about time we recognised the expert community role of Citizens Advice, rather than just paying it lip service.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): One way we can show how much we value Citizens Advice-like other Members, I have an excellent bureau in my constituency-is ensure that those who give their time to volunteer, particularly younger volunteers, are supported in the workplace. Too often people give up volunteering because the pressures of volunteering while working are too great, but we need those people because we cannot rely only on older people to staff bureaux. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with that.

Charlotte Atkins: That is absolutely right. With so many young people adversely affected by the recession, it makes sense for them to be trained in such work to advise fellow young people and also to develop a CV that is impressive to an employer.

When flexible new deal was introduced to Citizens Advice 18 months ago, the Department for Work and Pensions stated that priority would be given to service provider applicants who included third-sector organisations in their delivery plans. Biddulph CAB spent much time raising awareness with all the preferred local bidders of the potential for the bureau to help them to deliver that initiative successfully: helping them to remove barriers to work, such as debt; helping with claiming work-related benefits; understanding employment rights; working out whether they would be better off in or out of work; and understanding the issues that could be barriers. Those are important if people are not only to get work, but to stay in it. However, Serco and Pertemps have now been awarded the contracts for flexible new deal locally, but sadly there is no sign of the third-sector organisation that they are supposed to be using to help to deliver that service, making it much poorer as a result.

No one denies that the bureaux deliver real value for money, and of course they also relieve pressure on local authority services. Statistics for the first six months of this year, locally and nationally, show a significant increase in the number of people seeking advice. Citizens Advice provides evidence to demonstrate both the need for and the positive outcomes of its high-quality service, but the constant struggle to rise to the challenges it faces while confronted by uncertainty over funding is taking its toll on paid staff and on volunteers.

With local authorities and the Government cutting back, and with other organisations faced with increasing demands on their funds, citizens advice bureaux are in peril. We cannot afford to lose them from our high streets or to lose the great pool of skilled volunteers who have been highly trained to carry out the demanding role of bureau adviser. I ask the Minister to assure me that the Citizens Advice service will continue to have funding at least at the current level, in view of the increased demand for its services. I also ask that he consider how we can get central Government's vision for the role of the third sector fully taken on board and supported by statutory organisations locally. If we do not do that, we will see not only empty premises on our high streets, but many thousands of people left without the support they need to carry on during such challenging times.

David Taylor: In my earlier intervention I referred to the unmet need that Citizens Advice acknowledges there is, even at present. Where people have access to, and familiarity with, information and communications
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technology, they will get their advice online, but does my hon. Friend agree a large section of the population are digitally excluded and will not take that route to get such advice, leading to their continued social and financial exclusion? We would all be interested to hear in the winding-up speech what the Government intend to do about that problem.

Charlotte Atkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly as advising on debt is probably the biggest issue the bureaux face. If someone is heavily in debt, they are clearly unlikely to buy expensive computer equipment or hand-held devices that allow them to access the internet. Likewise, they are less likely to pop into an internet café to access services.

The CAB vision is simple-to help even more people than the bureaux do today. Unmet need for their help is estimated to involve more than 3 million people, and each year up to 4 million calls that they cannot answer are made to their services. Demand for the service is not expected to decline before 2014.

Citizens advice bureaux are a lifeline. I urge the Minister to help to develop a strategy to keep local bureaux alive, doing the job that they do best, which they have been doing for 70 years-serving the changing needs of our communities.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Quite a number of hon. Members want to speak, and I would like to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.30. Will hon. Members bear that in mind?

9.50 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate and introducing it with characteristic clarity. I do not think that I will be out of order if I say that the last time she initiated a debate in this Chamber-which I spoke in, just a few weeks ago-it was on thalidomide. The debate took place on a Wednesday, and by the Sunday the Government had run up the white flag. I hope that we have equal success in this debate.

The core issue is ensuring sustainable funding for citizens advice bureaux. All of us could give examples of the excellent work done by the bureaux in our constituencies. I have two in mine: one in Banbury and one in Bicester. Both do excellent work. As the hon. Lady said, individually they are charities and, as such, they do their best to raise money locally. However, I think that if one did a survey on Sheep street in Bicester or the high street in Banbury, most people would say that they thought that the citizens advice bureau was an extension of the public service. Bureaux therefore find it hard to raise money. A CAB is not a sexy cause in comparison with the local hospice, the young homelessness project or the Banbury branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It is a difficult ask for bureaux.

The next area of funding has generally been local government. We all have to be grown-up about this. All of us know that, irrespective of who wins the next general election, local government's projected figures for the next few years are very squeezed. Oxfordshire
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county council has been having to explain to people in our county that it will have to make significant savings on its budget. The position is exactly the same for Cherwell district council.

Local government, of course, is hit by the recession just as much as anyone else. A district council still has to run a planning department, but it does not have the same volume of fees coming in from planning applications, and more people have to be employed to deal with housing benefit. That means that if the council is looking round, what tend to be squeezed are discretionary areas of spending, including grants to organisations such as citizens advice bureaux.

We must take a more adult approach to how the bureaux are funded. There is no dispute; everyone sees them as being of real value. The briefing sent to hon. Members by Citizens Advice before the debate makes the position clear. It states:

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