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How we unlocked £147million for people in need last year

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This column was first published in the Herald on 1 September 2021.

For people across Scotland the pandemic has put a strain on their finances and even now, despite the lifting of most restrictions, many still face financial uncertainty that is set to continue for the foreseeable future. So, as the country starts to look forward and begins to chart its difficult path to recovery it is essential that those who have faced so much hardship are given the chance to thrive rather than shouldering the burden of that recovery.

Far too many people were facing financial pressures even before the pandemic struck and given all the pain and sacrifice we have gone through collectively over the past year we owe it to ourselves, but especially those most in need, to strive to make society work better for all of us.

If we want to empower communities across Scotland to recover and prosper in a post-COVID world then equipping them with the tools and information they need must be an essential part of that. By supporting people with expert advice, we can help people access what they are entitled to, alleviate financial stress and begin to build a fairer society. Put bluntly, if the recovery is to work for everyone, we need to use every tool at our disposal to help make sure ordinary people have as much money in their pocket as possible.

The Citizens Advice network in Scotland has been supporting people to this for decades and a large part of that is helping to maximise incomes and ease financial worries. In fact, our most recent statistics show that during 2020/21 the network unlocked nearly £147 million in financial gain for over 171,000 people.

We are especially proud of this figure given before the pandemic our services have been delivered through in-person, face-to-face advice for the best part of a century. We have always taken this approach because it delivers the best results for our clients, whether that be due to the complex nature of the issues people are facing, the vulnerability of the client, or simply because people feel more comfortable talking to a friendly face.

Lockdowns and social distancing posed immense challenges, but CABs didn’t miss a beat and continued to deliver vital advice. In addition to launching Scotland’s Citizens Advice Helpline as an emergency response, we also developed to allow people to round up all their online options for increasing their incomes and cutting their bills.

To deliver the huge financial returns for the people of Scotland in the last year, despite the difficult but necessary public health restrictions on providing face-to-face advice for much of 2020/21 is incredible. It shines a light on the value and the return on investment the network delivers for Scotland’s communities in even the hardest of times. Indeed, for every £1 the network received to cover the CAB core advice service, £14 was returned to the community in client gains.

This is real money that will go into the pockets of real people, it can and does make a huge difference to people’s ability to make ends meet. As well as supporting individuals this money also goes a long way in supporting their communities and building wealth as it is spent in local businesses.

Local bureaux act as an anchor point in communities from Stranraer to Shetland and by utilising the network to maximise income and build community wealth the task of making the post-pandemic recovery work for the whole country, while still immense, can be made a little bit easier.

East Renfrewshire CAB is celebrating its 50th birthday today. West Dunbartonshire CAB will mark the same anniversary in just two weeks’ time, and Airdrie CAB will hit the same milestone on 1st November. Just think of the impact these three organisations have all had in those communities, how many people they’ll have helped in that time. And of course the same could be said for each of the 56 other CABs across Scotland. They’re not all 50 years old, in fact some are older, but they each standing as a symbol of what happens when communities come together to support each other.

I have talked a lot about the power of community and what can be achieved when local people are empowered to help those around them, indeed it is something that lies at the very heart of the Citizens Advice network.

Despite a once in a century pandemic over 1,900 volunteers continued to step up for their communities and provide advice and support to those who needed it, logging well over 620,000 hours despite facing the numerous challenges posed by an unprecedented public health crisis and the associated restrictions.

That to me shows the power of communities to come together and build themselves up when they have the right tools to do so. This capacity to support one and other has never has it been more apparent than in the past year and it is something people in power, of all political allegiances, would do well to remember as we look to put the pandemic behind us.

Looking ahead, autumn will pose huge challenges, with the end of furlough, the increase in the energy price cap and the possibility of Universal Credit being cut.

So, as we look to the future and envisage what kind of country we want to see emerge from the pandemic we will have many big questions to find answers too. But when it comes supporting our communities, the unique service provided by the Citizens Advice network will be there to help build strong foundations and support those in need as we have for more than 80 years.