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Financial crash has lessons for a post-pandemic world

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This article was first published in the Herald on 17 March 2020.

In a few weeks Scotland’s political parties will hit the virtual campaign trail ahead of Scotland going to the polls in May. It will be an election like no other, and in turn it will lead to a Parliament and Government which will face challenges not seen since the 2008 financial crisis.

What’s essential is that we learn the lessons of what happened after 2008 and don’t repeat them – people’s incomes and living standards must be the building blocks of our recovery, not afterthoughts if we really are to build back better.

Even before the pandemic people in Scotland faced insufficient incomes and rising living costs.

Major advice areas for the Citizens Advice network before the onset of Covid-19 included social security, personal debt, employment and housing.  Meanwhile, estimates suggest Scotland’s fuel poverty rate, already at an unacceptable 1 in 4 homes, could reach nearly 30% as a result of Covid-19.  

Fast action from policy makers to support incomes during the crisis, such as the furlough scheme, payment breaks, increasing Universal Credit, boosting the Scottish Welfare Fund, and Council Tax Reduction schemes were welcome, however people across Scotland will face a cliff edge moment early in the new parliamentary term when current emergency protections begin to expire. 

The next Scottish Government will face the immediate challenge of our economy reopening as various financial support schemes end. This is a moment of huge risk for people, many of whom will have built up new or additional debts and arrears during the crisis, and face reduced incomes, rising bills, and unemployment.  Remember some of these people are the very people who have been at the forefront of providing key, essential services to us all over the last year and for whom the nation owes a real debt of gratitude.  

Analysis of CAB clients with multiple debts, undertaken during the pandemic, reveals more than two in five have no money left over each month after living expenses. In total complex debt clients helped by the network since lockdown owe more than £31million, with an average debt of £9,678.21.

It’s vital that the next Scottish Government addresses this threat with the urgency it requires. Failure to do increases the chances of people across the country being swept into further destitution and poverty and will risk any wider economic recovery.

That’s why this week Citizens Advice Scotland launched our manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections. We outlined a range of actions the next Scottish Government should take with urgency to address the threat to people as we come out of lockdown. 

Among these changes are targeted temporary interventions to help renters clear or reduce arrears arising from the pandemic, and the retention of some of the emergency measures which were introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic to protect tenants. All mandatory eviction grounds should be made discretionary to give tenants a fairer opportunity to have their case heard by an independent tribunal. Additionally, pre-action requirements already mandatory in the social rented sector should be extended to the private rented sector.

With council tax debt remaining the number one debt issue the network deals with, we also want to see the next Scottish Government meet the costs to local authorities of writing off council tax arrears specifically caused by Covid-19 or provide another form of funding support for council tax payers affected in this way. This would help reduce the financial hardship of the pandemic on households and allow people to be better able to meet council tax payments in the current year.

While coming out of lockdown represents an immediate challenge for people, the medium to long term threat of climate change cannot be ignored. CAS supports net zero targets but wants to ensure the transition to a low carbon economy is fair on those who earn the least. To that end we call on all parties to commit to ensuring fuel poverty schemes are reaching those who need it. Many households rely on the Warm Home Discount (WHD), however less than a third of people in Scotland who were eligible for the WHD rebate received it. Some schemes, including the Winter Fuel Payment and the Cold Weather Payments are in the process of being devolved, this presents an opportunity to ensure they are designed to better target households experiencing fuel poverty.

CAS also wants to see Legal Aid reform prioritised following the election to ensure support is available for those who need it, regardless of their location or the nature of the legal issue being considered. To meet unmet need, Legal Aid funding should be rebalanced to support an early intervention and prevention approach with increased grant funding.  

Finally, we want to see a new approach to local authority spending, supporting more flexibility and enabling them to consider more holistic outcomes for citizens in line with the National Performance Framework, so that councils don’t have to choose between fixing potholes and fighting poverty.

The Citizens Advice network unlocked more than £1.3billion in the decade following the 2008 financial crash, and we’ll be here to help people through the challenges of post pandemic life. This money is then spent in the communities where people live which in turn helps local shops, and businesses.

During this crisis the CAB network did not miss a beat. Bureaux transitioned to remote working and ensured people still got the advice they need.

We urge policymakers to make the right choices following the Scottish Parliament election to tackle the threat faced by the poorest people and to deliver on the bold recommendations of the Social Renewal Advisory Board for a ‘new normal’ as we come out of the pandemic. We stand ready to help.