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Face-to-face advice

Gil Long, Chair of Parkhead Citizens Advice Bureau and a Trustee of Citizens Advice Scotland

This column was first published in the Herald on 10 January 2022.

Ask any Citizens Advice Bureau adviser and they will tell you that clients seldom approach a bureau with one issue. What starts as a single question about a specific benefit or how to deal with one bill rapidly morphs into a spiders-web of issues potentially spanning benefit entitlement, employment, housing, family law and multiple debts.

The adviser’s skills in listening, gaining the client’s trust and confidence enables the holistic approach; the ability to tease out, consider and offer help on all aspects of the client’s problem. As one client put it: “they tell you about all your entitlements not just the thing you ask about”.

In 2020/21 the 59 CABs in Scotland helped 171,000 clients delivering £147 million in client financial gains to people.

At the start of lockdown CABs throughout Scotland shut their doors and almost over night re-opened with advisers working from home offering advice and information over the ‘phone, via web-chat or email. But what impact has the enforced reliance on digital methods of service delivery had on the CAB network and clients? 

Parkhead CAB conducted a small piece of research to investigate the pros and cons of delivering advice digitally. Many clients welcomed the ability to pick up the phone.  It was more convenient, less time consuming and more anonymous. But others were victims of the digital divide.  Elderly clients, those with disabilities or mental health problems, people whose first language was not English and those without the skills or equipment to digitally engage, lost out, in other words, the most vulnerable.

Some problems were simply too difficult, sensitive or time consuming to deal with via email or over the phone. For example, the 44 page Personal Independence Payment (PIP) form where the adviser helps the client interpret the myriad questions or the multiple debt problems where the paperwork must be read in order to assist the client to manage their finances.

Most importantly advisers spoke about the knowledge gained in seeing people face-to-face that allowed them to help the whole person; the visual clues from body language, the need to see someone’s disability to understand, the ability to empathise and gain trust.  One adviser summed it up: I think technology is great and has its place but nothing replaces human contact in my bookMany of our clients feel the same.”

Timely advice rescues lives and saves on social services. A report published in 2021 estimated that Scottish CAB advice saved £7.3 million in health care costs. A face-to-face service is vital if CABs are to continue to help the most vulnerable.  When Parkhead CAB re-opened its doors in July 2020 John was in the queue, and told us that “I would have been doomed if I didn’t have you guys helping me with my benefit enquiries…I’d be homeless.” 

Analysis by CAS found that hundreds of thousands of people went without internet or mobile phone access at least once during the pandemic. These are people who would benefit hugely from the advice CABs give, but would not be able to access services if we moved to a digital only approach, and why we need to protect local advice.