Government Agencies ‘Aggressive, Unhelpful and Incompetent’
The impact of the government’s welfare reforms is the main concern among Scotland’s CAB advisers going into 2012, according to a survey published today. The survey also reveals a number of angry comments from CAB staff about some of the agencies they regularly have to deal with on behalf of their clients - including government departments, jobcentres and fuel companies.
At the end of every year. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) surveys all of Scotland’s local CABs to ask which issues are causing most problems for their clients. The survey is the only one its kind in Scotland, reflecting the opinions of those who are in the front line of helping vulnerable Scots at face-to-face level.
This year’s survey shows that more than half of Scotland’s CAB staff (53%) think Benefits issues are the single biggest problem area. 73% said this was one of their top two issues.
The other major concerns include Debt (cited by 21% of advisers as their main issue and by 46% as one of their top two issues) and Employment (14% said it was their top issue and 30% said it was one of their top two). But Utilities (especially fuel companies) have emerged as the fastest-growing concern: 7% of CAB staff cited this as their top issue, but nearly 22% see it as one of their top two - a huge leap from just 12% in last year’s survey.
Publishing the survey results today, CAS Head of Policy Susan McPhee says,
“This information is invaluable – not just for us but for politicians and government as well. Because in addition to providing a vital advice service to people who are in need, CAB advisers are also a unique source of information on what issues are causing the greatest problems for Scots.
“This year’s survey shows that the reforms being made to the benefits system are really hitting the most vulnerable Scots, and our staff around the country now believe this is by far the greatest problem they see being brought to the CAB. Debt also remains high on the list, and there is a big rise in concern about the behaviour of utility companies – much of which was based on the issue of high fuel bills.”
When asked which organisations were the most problematic to deal with, 44% of CAB advisers identified the agencies who deal with benefits (e.g. the Department of Work & Pensions, JobCentre Plus and the Tax office).
For example, the DWP and Jobcentres are described by advisers as “incompetent, disorganised, and show[ing] a complete lack of respect to people,” “continuously harass[ing] clients,” “ very badly run and ….clawing back money from the poorest,” and “they continue to get it wrong.” Another respondent lambasted the “farcical and inept medical assessments carried out on individuals as this is causing undue stress and suffering on individuals with serious health problems.”
The government’s Tax Office meanwhile is described as “aggressive and unhelpful,” and “very slow at responding and not happy to discuss issues with us.” And the rise in advisers’ concern about fuel companies is also reflected, with one typical comment reporting that, “It is very difficult to get through to their help lines and when you do the service is so bad that it is almost impossible to get an answer to a question.” Another adviser said that “many of our clients have pre-payment meters and are self-disconnecting as they cannot afford to top up their meters,” and another reported that, “This issue is affecting the most vulnerable within our society, often leaving clients in debt and having to make impossible choices between EATING or HEATING!!!”
Some more of these comments are listed in the notes below, and the full list of comments is contained in the attached report (alongside the survey’s statistical findings).
Susan McPhee says,
“I’d like to thank all the CAB staff who responded to our survey. CAS will use these findings to determine our campaigning priorities for 2012. And I would hope the government and others would also take note of this survey. After all, Scotland’s CAB advisers really are uniquely placed to reflect the most accurate picture of what social issues are the most pressing in Scotland right now. They see the emerging trends before anyone else does, and so can flag them up like no other organisation can.
“It has been said that the CAB service is like the ‘canary in the mine-shaft’ – signalling emerging problems, so they can be fixed before they become overwhelming. This survey is a very good example of that, and it’s important that people listen to the signals that we give.”
For more details please contact Tony Hutson on 07774 751655.
Between them, Scotland’s Citizens Advice Bureaux helped clients to deal with 560,303 new issues last year - nearly 15,000 more issues than in the previous year. We are the only nationwide service which offers free, impartial and confidential advice from the Highlands and islands to the Borders.
Comments Made by CAB staff in the survey
These are all direct quotes given by advisers in responding to the survey. They are listed here anonymously, but all were given by staff at Scottish CAB offices and are broadly representative of the views expressed in the survey as a whole.
NB This is just a selection.
The Benefits System
- Given the UK governments plans to continue with savage cuts to the benefit system this is clearly going to impact heavily on the most vulnerable in society.
- With the welfare reform people are being forced into real poverty. With the dramatic change in income people have to decide on either having food or putting the heating on.
- Benefit changes likely to have serious negative impact on people's lives.
- Due to the changes in the benefits system which is likely to cause confusion amongst those on benefits and issues surrounding housing benefits and backdates.
- Government attack on benefits.
- with the proposed cuts again the vulnerable members of society will be the hardest hit.
- Around 50% of all enquiries here are debt related. It is a major cause or contributing factor to stress, anxiety and depression. Some clients pay their creditors before buying food and paying for fuel - leaving them in severe financial hardship.
- Most enquiries are wholly or have some element of debt.
- Debt is now rising due to the recession.
- It seems to be on the increase with more and more people struggling and failing to make ends meet.
- Different client groups are now affected by debt. e.g. self-employed.
- Due to the financial situation I believe people are struggling to make ends meet and costs e.g. utilities are continually rising.
- I feel that utility prices have increased beyond acceptable limits.
- The rising cost will create poverty.
- Clients facing fuel poverty on onslaught on winter.
- I have found that the gas and electricity companies are not only increasing their prices far too much, their service is shocking. It is very difficult to get through to their help lines and when you do the service is so bad that it is almost impossible to get an answer to a question.
- Many of our clients have pre-payment meters and are self-disconnecting as they cannot afford to top-up their meters.
- With never-ending price hikes and never ending record profits made by energy companies, it is essential that this is a priority in CAS campaigning next year. This issue is affecting the most vulnerable within our society, often leaving clients in debt and having to make impossible choices between EATING or HEATING!!!
- There are fewer jobs around and therefore employers have more power in the market place. It is important that this power is not misused.
- With many employers cutting staff levels because of the financial situation, more redundancies are being made and less opportunity for more jobs to be created.
- High unemployment affecting the living standards of many causing hardship and debt.
- We are already seeing a rise in eviction/repossession cases - this is likely to increase in current economic climate.
Comments Made About Specific Agencies
Department of Work & Pensions (DWP)
- Triage staff are incompetent, disorganized, and show a complete lack of respect to people enrolled in the work programme and continuously harass clients.
- They continue to get it wrong.
- Increasing complexity of benefits means DWP staff often don't understand the system and give incorrect advice/interpretation.
- Giving bad advice to clients, preventing clients from using landlines in job centers even to phone other parts of DWP such as Bathgate etc, wrongful reliance on right to reside and habitual residence tests.
- Still referring to citizens advice instead of assisting their clients with information about appeals and other possible benefits.
- Difficulties getting through on phone, bad administration, clients not being told about possible entitlements.
Jobcentre Plus (JCP)
- It is very badly run and causing too many people problems, and clawing back money from the poorest.
- Frequently offering inadequate or inaccurate advice to clients/clients distressed by sanction rulings.
- the often farcical and inept medical assessments carried out on individuals as this is causing undue stress and suffering on individuals with serious health problems and results in many people being wrongly denied their entitlements.
Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
- Aggressive and unhelpful on phone.
- Very slow at responding and not happy to discuss issues with us.
- Clients are often confused by their letters and struggle to get in touch with them.
- Getting mandates put on file and being able to discuss client’s issue can takes several months.
- Constantly requests mandates when already have one, never get back to client.
- Call waiting time for people trying to sort out tax credits etc
- Administrative problems with tax credits.
- miscalculations and misinformation.
- Difficult to deal with, inconsistent.
Banks and other Lenders
- They are very often forceful and threatening in their approach; harassing vulnerable people
- They seem very unfair and unhelpful to customers having financial problems.
- Lack of empathy regarding financial hardship.
- Borderline harassment of vulnerable people.
- Lousy responsiveness/customer service.
- Poor response to client issues.
- Bad administration causing clients problems.
- Poor communication and customer service.
- Incredibly poor levels of customer service even to CABx dealing with debt on behalf of client.
- utility companies treating clients unfairly especially when vulnerable;
- cost of utilities/ door to door practices;
- treatment of those in fuel poverty;
- poor response to client problems;
- tariff charges, far too expensive and unfairly priced for those on lower incomes;
- profits far more important than clients.