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Benefit reforms dominate CAB concerns for 2012

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.