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2 Dec 2009 : Column 88WH—continued

Citizens Advice Cymru dealt with 298,000 individual problems in Wales in 2008-09, which is a huge figure. Some 37 per cent. of those problems were debt related and 33 per cent. were benefit related, with an 11 per cent. overall increase in client issues on the previous year. In Aberystwyth, there were 1,300 new clients and 4,100 new cases in one year. Those clients represent
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about 5 per cent. of the population of the town-a significant figure. The volume of cases is increasing all the time.

Citizens Advice Cymru has calculated that it has put at least £25 million back into the pockets of its clients and that it has raised the income of at least a quarter of them. According to the New Economics Foundation, that would put £75 million back into the Welsh economy. Bureaux in Wales have also assisted with £169 million of personal debt. They have negotiated with creditors, assisted clients and ensured that people can manage their debts. We can all think of the countless individuals who have come to us. Sometimes, we may not have had the expertise or specialism to deal with them, so we have forwarded them to advisers at the CAB.

The message from the debate will be that we need to continue the £10 million increased-hours funding-that is a core message. The Cardigan bureau has received that funding, which has allowed it to see an additional 470 clients by opening for longer hours, five days a week. Again, that is a significant number for a small market town. However, staff at the bureau are concerned that the funding will end on 31 March and they hope that it will be renewed so that they can meet the 29 per cent. increase in demand that they have experienced. That is the point that I hope the Minister will be able to address today.

The Cardigan bureau's funding has come from a variety of sources. The bureau is scrabbling around for funding from different sources for different projects. Sources include the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire county councils, the Legal Services Commission, the financial inclusion fund, the National Assembly for Wales and town and community councils. The core funding from the two local authorities has amounted to £35,000 a year.

Local authority funding for bureaux in Wales amounts to about 37 per cent. of the total, compared with a laudable 8 per cent. from the National Assembly Government. However, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and others have said, the pressures on local authority budgets mean that just as more people are trying to get through the CAB's doors, budgets are being squeezed. I had the strange experience of a constituent asking me to complain to the CAB about not being able to get an appointment to see an adviser-that is the bizarre nature of the problem. My constituent was told in no uncertain terms that there was a much broader political funding issue, but we were able to help him none the less.

Ceredigion has had a better funding settlement this year from the Assembly Government, but it still does not match the demand on services. Ceredigion is continuing to provide funding to Aberystwyth, as it did before, despite the fact that the transfer of our housing stock to a new housing association has meant that that housing association has decided not to buy the services of Citizens Advice. It is entitled to make that decision but it is not without implications. However, the reliance on local government funding in Wales has certainly been a problem, and that is true throughout the United Kingdom.

There was until quite recently some uncertainty about the Aberystwyth bureau, and among other things there was a huge wave of feeling in the community. People were collecting signatures on petitions in the street, and there were letters and e-mails urging the county council
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to make some transitional funding available so that a bureau could carry on in a university town of 20,000 people. Mercifully it now can, as some additional funding has been made available for the next year. I could not countenance a town of that size being without a citizens advice bureau.

The issue goes beyond debt relief, although that is critical in this time of recession. The citizens advice bureau has been co-ordinating a financial education project in the community, looking beyond the immediacy of a crisis into more general service provision. It has also allocated some funding-I think it is Assembly funding- to appoint a worker to look into benefits for children with disabilities. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) alluded to those issues. Perhaps we do not always associate such detailed project work with citizens advice bureaux, but it takes place, and that reminds us of the innovation and expertise of the staff and volunteers.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) intervened on the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands early in the debate, and mentioned the critical issue of rurality and inadequate public transport. It is an illusion to think that people in Ceredigion, or much of rural Wales, can even get to a citizens advice bureau in one of the principal towns, but our bureaux have worked hard to develop outreach facilities in other towns, so that older people, young mums and others can get to the services more readily. That is a huge issue. Departments sometimes find it difficult to develop models of service provision in rural areas, and it is also a big challenge for the third sector.

Citizens Advice Cymru has given advice from 260 locations in Wales, 47 in main offices and 161 in outreach locations. We should recognise that Citizens Advice is taking its services to people, particularly in rural settings, and not necessarily expecting them to get to the services. Citizens Advice Cymru, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned, is developing a single national advice line, to cover the whole of Wales by October 2010. That is important because of the nature of devolution, and the different schemes provided by the Welsh Assembly Government. It is also important linguistically that a service should be provided in both languages in Wales.

The message of the debate should be to celebrate the work of the excellent volunteers who give their time in a spirit of public service. I hope that the Minister can respond to them positively-and the wider community, too.

10.23 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this important debate. I am glad of the opportunity to speak. We have heard from hon. Members who represent Welsh and rural constituencies, and constituencies in all parts of the country, and I want to speak for inner-city constituencies, which have their own particular needs, for which Citizens Advice is vital.

I have, in 22 years as the Member of Parliament for Hackney, worked closely with the citizens advice bureau, and I and my constituents have had reason to be grateful for its dedication and the high quality of its legal advice.
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Such a constituency, with a very diverse community, is often prey-I say this with all due respect to the solicitor among us-to shoddy legal advice from so-called immigration advisers and legal advisers. The citizens advice bureau is the one place where my constituents, some of whom are from highly marginalised communities, and whose first language is not English, can go to get disinterested and high-quality legal advice; that is not always possible on inner-city streets.

The bureau is a particularly valuable resource in Hackney, which is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. We are ranked as the most deprived area in England, according to the indices of deprivation 2007. The demand for the service is always high, and queues or inability to get appointments are an issue. However, that is not caused by the citizens advice bureau. It is a funding problem. The Hackney bureau has done its best to maintain its services. As other hon. Members have said, good advice can change people's lives. My constituency's citizens advice bureau gives more than 10,000 Hackney residents a year help that they might not be able to get anywhere else. It has prevented evictions and worked to increase local people's income through benefit checks. It has helped with claiming benefits and challenging decisions. Clients can also feed back into the service advice that helps with health and well-being, as well as helping to resolve problems and tackle poverty.

Other hon. Members have talked about the importance of the volunteers. Seventy-eight per cent. of workers in citizens advice bureaux are volunteers, and they give more than £85 million of free time a year between them. In a highly materialistic and atomised society, the spirit of volunteering and helping each other, without looking for pay, is one of the most important things about the citizens advice bureaux. It runs counter to the social trends of the past 20 years, in many ways.

Hackney is a very deprived constituency, so one might think it would be the least likely place in which to find people with time to volunteer, but at any one time there are more than 50 local people who volunteer to help the community at the citizens advice bureau; we have a core of 50 volunteers. The bureau has won local victories. It was able to increase the school uniform grant in Hackney from £60 to £100, after surveying local schools and parents and finding out how much it cost to get a uniform. It had that positive input to policy as well as helping individuals.

There are nevertheless funding issues, and systemic issues about some of the problems that citizens advice bureaux are asked to take up. In the few minutes remaining to me I want to flag up the issue of old tax credit overpayment debts. Citizens Advice continues to be concerned nationally about the continuing hardship and stress of people who are still repaying tax credits that were overpaid during the first two years of the system's operation. Next year's pre-Budget report will be an opportunity for the Government to deal with the problem of tax credit overpayment. We all know the problems with the system. People who are entitled to tax credits are frightened off from claiming them because they have heard of people who are harassed and burdened with a debt that is not really of their making.

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Members of Parliament and Citizens Advice know that the standard of administration of tax credits was very poor in the first two years of the system-a fact that the Government have acknowledged. In addition, the level of support that is now available to help people with their claims was not available in the first two years. It is wrong that claimants with overpayment debts dating back to 2003-04 or 2004-05 should still be struggling to establish the extent of and reason for their debt, and to repay the balance, which forces them further into debt.

The efforts of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to write off more old tax credit overpayment debt are welcome, but more needs to be done.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Will the hon. Lady relate her remarks to Citizens Advice?

Ms Abbott: Yes; but Hackney citizens advice bureau is particularly concerned about long-standing tax credit debt, and so is Citizens Advice nationally, so I wanted to flag it up. The Minister may not be able to respond on the issue today, but I hope that he will consider it.

I value Hackney citizens advice bureau because of the quality of the advice that it offers my constituents, and the care and time it gives, which are not necessarily available elsewhere. I value it because it symbolises the idea that no man is an island in this harsh 21st century. There have been struggles, and issues have arisen at local authority and Government level, but I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands secured the debate, and I look forward to the Minister's response to the many important points that have been raised this morning.

10.29 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). I also congratulate the CAB on achieving 70 years of the most fantastic service.

Several hon. Members have talked about the volunteers who make CAB-their team spirit, expertise and training, and everything done on a shoestring, of course. I can probably top the examples of care and dedication that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) in particular raised. I went to see one of my constituents, who had an industrial injury problem. His CAB adviser, who had been advising him for years, brought the papers to the guy's home in a holdall. The number of hours of care and dedication that that volunteer had put in was astounding.

Citizens advice bureaux, a little like MPs, aim to give free advice on any issue to anyone. I work closely with the two bureaux in my constituency, in Solihull and Shirley. We often swap clients-I send them people who need the technical expertise and they often send people to me when they cannot help them any more, saying, "The last-ditch attempt is to go and see your MP."

I would also like to pick up on the national aspect of the work of Citizens Advice, on consumer and benefits issues in particular. I secured a Westminster Hall debate on will writing and the need for regulation, for which I used Citizens Advice and the expertise of its advisers with their clients to determine their level of concern over unregulated people writing wills.

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Dealing with the recession preoccupies everyone at the moment, and the citizens advice bureaux are certainly getting their fair share of the problem. The average debt of a person going to see the CAB has risen from £10,600 to £17,000-worth of unsecured debt. Every day, bureaux deal with 9,300 new debt problems; debt alone constitutes a 27 per cent. increase in case load. Eight thousand new benefit problems are received every day. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) talked most eloquently about tax credits, which are a huge problem, with inquiries up by 22 per cent. Overall, inquiries and clients are up by 17 per cent. in April to June '09, compared with the same period last year.

I hate to be the harbinger of doom, but my reading is that, even though the Chancellor says that we shall reach the turning point of the recession at the turn of the year, that will not necessarily mean that things get better. As companies restructure, there will still be increasing job losses, so the problems are not suddenly going to get better and the need for support for people from the CAB and for funding from the Government and other bodies will be even greater.

I am very concerned about the threats to funding. We have heard about local authorities having to deal with a greater increase in demand for their services, such as housing benefit and school meals, yet having less income-from planning applications or any reserves not attracting interest because of low interest rates-to meet that demand. A council tax rise of 3.5 per cent. is suggested as the average to enable local authorities to fund all the additional demands.

My first question to the Minister concerns the £10 million-worth of additional hours funding. Can he confirm that it will be extended when the one-year period expires?

I also want to ask about the new Government legal advice centres. If funding is taken away from Citizens Advice to fund that new service, which I am sure is welcome, the bureaux could lose 70 per cent. of their Government funding. Can the Minister confirm that Citizens Advice funding will be preserved?

I want to ask about the procurement process. Procurement tenders seem to be getting bigger and bigger and less and less local, and they are more complex for small charities to fill in. We have heard the story about Hull CAB, which lost out to A4e, a private contractor. That seems to justify the whole spirit of CAB and other charities. I know that the Government do not want to interfere in the procurement process that is done by local authorities, for example, but I think that guidelines should be issued about procurement, because as we have heard from so many hon. Members this morning, citizens advice bureaux have to worry year to year and live hand to mouth to preserve their funding. They have so many better things to do instead of worrying about whether they will have funding.

I want to echo comments, particularly those of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, about core funding. Will the Minister please look at the possibility of an increase in core funding and some certainty for the future for an organisation that, for the past 70 years-and I am sure for the next 70 years-is doing a fine job for the country?

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10.37 am

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate and on the impressive way in which she presented her case on behalf of citizens advice bureaux. I would like to declare my interests, which are in the Register of Members' Financial Interests.

First, I praise my local bureau, in King's Lynn, which does a first-class job. It is a vital part of the community and, indeed, a lifeline for many of my constituents. There are countless stories, which have been told to me, about how the permanent staff volunteers in the CAB have helped people get their lives back on track. I also testify to the fact I have referred constituents to the CAB, which has been incredibly responsive. Indeed, the CAB has referred a number of constituents to me, for references to Ministers, local authorities and perhaps to other quangos or utilities, so we work well together. The CAB is a pivotal part of the community, which is a point made by a number of hon. Members this morning.

Citizens advice bureaux also take pressure off other agencies, which is why I would submit that, in the scheme of things, whatever money Government spend on bureaux is more than saved through pressure being taken off other agencies. I wonder if the Minister has ever asked his Department to study that, because the results would be interesting.

I also praise the work of a number of local solicitors, not just in my local CAB but in many other bureaux up and down the country. They generously give up their time pro bono. Without that extra, specialist help, many bureaux would not be able to provide the service that they do.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the economy is facing huge challenges, which obviously means a great deal of extra pressure on citizens advice bureaux. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made that point very clearly, as did the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) a moment ago. I understand that over the past year there has been a 51 per cent. increase on the previous year in calls and visits to bureaux involving mortgage and loan arrears. That is staggering. There has also been a 22 per cent. increase in bankruptcy problems. Last year, CABs handled nearly 2 million debt cases.

I think that everyone agrees that CABs' role in helping our constituents and the citizens of this country find a way around the problems caused by the recession is more important than ever. Now is the worst time for any pressure to be placed on their funding streams, but such pressure is inevitable as local authority budgets come under increasing strain, as I can see in my constituency.

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