The past few weeks have seen the worst cost of living crisis in living memory deepen, as energy bills soared and prices in the shops continue to outpace wages and benefits.
People are rightly worried, in some cases even scared, about how they are going to cope in the coming months – this perfect storm follows a pandemic which weakened our financial resilience.
Over 1.8 million people saw their finances worsen during the pandemic. Even before the eye watering increase on 1 April one in three of us found energy bills unaffordable and almost 500,000 people had cut back on food shopping to deal with these bills.
It’s outrageous that in 2022 people are faced with the impossible choice of a warm home or food on the table.
We need to see much bolder and see more radical action from policymakers to avert this crisis. The decision to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week last autumn was always the wrong one, and seems incredibly short-sighted now.
All across the country CABs are helping people every day navigate this cost of living crisis. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the fact the Citizens Advice network is more than 80 years old. We’ve helped people through generational crisis such as the Second World War to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’re here now.
The thing about this crisis is that effects everyone in a variety of ways. While energy costs are driving much of it, costs are going up seemingly everywhere and incomes simply aren’t keeping pace.
That’s why the CAB network is such an essential community service. Our approach is person centred, we don’t just solve one problem, we try and help the person through everything.
Life isn’t black and white, and problems don’t occur in isolation. CABs understand this – in fact 4 in 10 of the cases they deal with are complex, dealing with multiple advice types. Looking at CAB energy cases for example, we see that all almost half of people needing help also needed advice in 2 or more areas such as housing, Universal Credit or debt.
What CAB advisers do at times can be simply life changing. Helping people recognise their rights but also unlocking money for people. One in five clients see a financial gain from the CAB network, and on average that gain is worth around £4,400. Imagine the difference that sum of money could make to people facing that heart-breaking choice between heating or eating.
This is all delivered with the empathy and understanding that comes from local people helping their local communities. There’s no judgement, just help with free, impartial and confidential advice.
As the times change, the Citizens Advice network is changing with it. Not just in terms of the type of advice we deliver, but how we deliver it. Every month around 200,000 people check our online advice and 20,000 get advice from us in person or over the phone. For vulnerable people with complex needs there’s still no substitute for face to face advice.
So as restrictions wind down, Scotland faces a new crisis. The CAB network is here, offering people support in a way few, if any, other services truly can.
Derek Mitchell is CEO of Citizens Advice Scotland. This article first appeared in the Herald on Monday 18th April 2022.